Bill to raise minimum age of marriage for girls disconnected from reality: Activists

Child marriages remain widely prevalent in India

Society

December 25, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Bill to raise minimum age of marriage for girls disconnected from reality: Activists

National Family Health Survey (NFHS) reports 23.3pc of marriages between 2019-20 involved minors below the age of 18 (Photo: UNICEF)

During the just-concluded Winter Session of the Parliament, the government presented a bill in the Lok Sabha to increase the legal age of marriage of women from 18 years to 21 years, bringing it par with that of boys. The move has attracted support from some who call it a push for gender equality, while others call it a political stunt.

Since Union Women and Child Development minister Smriti Irani moved the Child Marriage Amendment Bill 2021 in Lok Sabha, opinions on social media have been widely divided on the utility of the amendment. Since the introduction of the bill, it has faced criticism from the opposition. Though the ruling party members tried to push it through the House without any discussion, like many other bills in the Winter Session, the bill was finally referred to the standing committee for a review.

Outside the Parliament, the bill has also attracted diverse comments, with some supporting the move as a push for gender equality and women empowerment, while others calling it little more than a political stunt.

The opponents of the bill say that in view of widespread prevalence of child marriages in the country, it is meaningless for the government to try and raise the marriageable age of girls even more. They say the government should first try to enforce the current legislation strictly to ensure that minors do not get caught in the marriage web.

According to the report of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) of all the marriages performed in the country between 2019-21, 23.3 pc of the marriages involved minors below the age of 18. The proportion has indeed fallen, but by a marginal 3.5 pc in the period of five years preceding the NFHS5. And worryingly, the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020 and with collapse of the Indian economy, the child marriages became sharply more commonplace as parents tried to get their minor daughters married off as a way to reduce the number of mouths to feed in the household.

National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) says that in 2020 there was a 50 pc increase in the number of cases registered under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act. The instances of child marriages were registered from across the country. A total of 785 cases were registered under this Act with the major offenders being Karnataka with 184 cases, West Bengal 98 cases, Tamil Nadu 77 cases and Telangana 62 cases.

In 2006, the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act was passed which defined the legal age of marriage to be 18 years for girls and 21 years for boys. Under this Act crimes involving child marriage are non-bailable and the offenders can be charged up to INR 100,000 in penalty or imprisonment up to two years or both.

Despite such stringent laws in place, India is still one of the leading countries in the world which has a high number of child marriage cases.

What do politicians have to say about the amendment?

“(Child Marriage Amendment 2021 Bill) is not a day late. Wish it had been there always. It would have helped a whole generation of women in all respects of social, economic and emotional. Also, the coming generations of children would have been healthier and better groomed,” Kiran Bedi, first female Indian Police Service (IPS) officer and former Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry tells Media India Group.

“It will deter early marriage and empower NGOs and law enforcement, empowering educational institutions to coax parents,” says Bedi who is staunchly in favour of the amendment.

“Governments and NGOs participate hugely participate with each other. We are in the age of proactive Corporate Social Responsibility. There is enough to spread this out widely and implement it for a whole generation of more educated, economically more self-reliant, emotionally better equipped to handle the risks of married life and also choose motherhood. I and an NGO for the last 30 years have been fighting against this custom. We have prevented hundreds of child marriages by our sheer presence and watch. I have seen this succeed and India of today is becoming very Women Power conscious. Governments are hugely investing hugely in several social empowerment schemes. Skill development in new education policy will benefit children especially women while in school by developing new skills,” says Bedi.

NGOs remain divided on issue

A number of NGOs around the country have been working proactively to fight the menace. Delhi-based Aarohan, that works for child rights, is one such organisation, its founder Rani Patel says the amendment is not needed. “This bill is not required right now. What will the government do by changing the age from 18 to 21? The custom of child marriage is still prevalent in the country, girls at the age of 16-17 are married off by their parents,” Patel tells Media India Group.

“In states such as UP, Bihar, especially in northern states it is very common. Even in South India, the customs are still present. Educated parents are less involved in this, usually, the uneducated and poor families indulge in this custom. Due to this Covid-19, many girls were practically forced into early marriages, the parents are unable to feed their children, ensure their safety for this reason they are forcing them to marry. In this field we are unable to even make a proper dent,” adds Patel.

Governments have taken out policies and provisions to curb this custom but these policies and laws are failing the general population in terms of this custom. People especially in the underdeveloped parts of India are egotistical and protective of their customs. “The government brings these kinds of policies based on Google searches. But until and unless government consults the grass-root level workers then taking out new policies like these prove ineffective and are just political stunts,” says Patel.

But even the NGOs seem to be divided on the issue. Ranjana Kumari, director of Centre for Social Research India, another Delhi-based NGO, welcomes the move as a shot in the arm for women empowerment. “This has been a demand of the women’s movement in India to have age parity in marriage. There is no rationale for boys to have 21 years and girls to have 18 years for marriage as there is no health reason, except for the social reason that in India it is a customary practice that you have to have the husband as much older to the wife. This also has created a lot of problems for women and that realisation has made us believe that it has to be the same for girls and boys. This is the appropriate time as far as gender rights are concerned, we need a lot more work in the area of empowering women and giving them agency,” Kumari tells tells Media India Group.

“It is very important to consider the marriage at the age of 21 because in spite of stringent law where the magistrate can intervene and arrest all the people participating in the marriage but very few of them do that because socially it is not acceptable. Politicians encourage child marriages because they do go and give gifts, money and everything to facilitate that child marriages in order to win votes. It’s been a problem, keeping 18 for girls is very convenient for the parents at 17 and a half they will get them married and say 18 is the age and now she is in the eighteenth year. So a lot of those marriages between the ages of 15 and 17 get solemnised in India. This certainly will give a push in terms of parents’ decision, it will give girls agency and they will be able to qualify for graduation from high school to graduation and they will get three extra years and their employability will increase. Also, they will be able to decide their reproductive rights,” says Kumari.

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