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HomeOpinionsGirls’-marriage-age-increase would ensure gender-justice & empowerment: But for some concerns

Girls’-marriage-age-increase would ensure gender-justice & empowerment: But for some concerns

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G Indira
Author of the book: The India I Know and of Hinduism. Publications in -charge Pragna Bharati Organisation, Hyderabad. Academician and free-lancer

In British India i.e. before Independence, girls used to get married quite young. There was no age restriction then. So, therefore, child-marriages were the order of the day. In the year 1929, the Child Marriage Restraint Act set the minimum age of girls and boys as 14 and 18 years. That was known as the Sharda Act of 1929. Later, in the post-independent India, it (the Act) was amended and girls’ age of marriage was increased to 18 years (and the boys to 21) in 1978 by amending erstwhile Sharda Act of 1929. This is keeping in view to lower the maternal mortality rate, as many young women die during giving child-birth. Recently, the BJP-Government at the Centre introduced the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill in parliament to raise girls’ marriage age once again. As per the gender justice and equality enshrined in the Constitution of India, the marriage-age of the girls has been raised to 21 years, on par with that of boys, which is 21 already. This is viewed by many women-groups as a progressive step. Many say this positive-step brings in for women: parity with men, opportunity to pursue higher studies, provides time for mental maturity and independent decision making ability.

Although legislation was made and the resultant-Act amended occasionally (by the parliament), there has not been much societal change with regard to child-marriages. Girl-child marriages are rampant in some parts of India. As per the U.N report: “Estimates suggest that each year, at least 1.5 million girls under 18 get married in India, which makes it home to the largest number of child brides in the world – accounting for a third of the global total. Nearly 16 percent of adolescent girls aged 15-19 are currently married.” (https://www.unicef.org/india/what-we-do/end-child-marriage) The report further says, “Child marriage ends childhood. It negatively influences children’s rights to education, health and protection. These consequences impact not just the girl directly, but also her family and community.” Just the other day, Philippines government passed a law that will help protect children, especially young girls by eliminating the longstanding and disturbing practice of child marriage in that country. Hence, many countries are recognizing that girl-child marriages have to be stopped.

Some women-groups question the rationale behind the move. They ask: when girls are matured enough to vote at eighteen, why can’t they marry? However, voting is a momentary personal choice that depends on their likes or dislikes of a political party. Even if they get a different party to power other than their choice, it would not make much of a difference to them in terms of how they lead their personal life. Whereas, in the case of marriage, it would impact their life directly— is the counter-argument.

Early marriages lead to early- bearing. According to the United Nations Report, in India, many girls die during child-labour/delivery. The increase in marriageable age could curb for girls in going through all these ordeals at a young-age. However, there are very many social issues that are related to the subject. Girls in rural India, do not have colleges nearby. They cannot go to faraway places to pursue their college education. They do not have proper nourishment or protection, if they sit at home (unable to pursue higher studies), as both parents go to work even in villages. Mainly in villages, they marry off a girl child for security reasons. How does the coming legislation work on these ground-level-issues — remains a question. Moreover, for education and health-care of girls, systems should be in place.

The reformist-anti-dowry legislation, though passed long ago, not got much impact at implementation-level. Tacitly, there is still dowry at play in marriages. Most often, this kind of legislations are limited to statue-books. By now in India, in the middle, upper-middle and elite classes, girls are marrying after 21 years only. Only in poorer sections early-marriages of girls are taking place. Especially in these Covid-19 Pandemic years, due to economic recession resulting in poverty, many poor people, unable to feed their girl-child performed their marriages. So, India has a society that is multi-tiered.  The proposal to raise girls’ marriage age to 21 is, at present, before the parliamentary standing committees of both the Houses. They would hopefully mull over on all these issues. When the society is not prepared to, the laws made would become futile. India is a country that follows age-old customs and beliefs. The vast Indian-society takes time to adjust/adopt/absorb the new law. If the violation of the law is a criminal offense, there would be repercussions. 

One good thing about this law is, it may pave the way for a Uniform Civil Code to this country. For, it is said that the law is going to apply uniformly to all girls, irrespective of their religious affiliation. In a way, this law, if implemented, overrides all personal laws. Therefore, certainly it paves the way for a Uniform Civil Code.

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G Indira
Author of the book: The India I Know and of Hinduism. Publications in -charge Pragna Bharati Organisation, Hyderabad. Academician and free-lancer
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