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Will The Rise In Legal Marriage Also Ensure A Better Future For India’s Girls?

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Issue With ‘Consent’ And ‘Right To Choose’

Amid this pandemic, on the occasion of Independence Day 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned that a committee would be set up to reconsider the legal marriage age for women in India. Following that, many opinions flew into the domain of public discourse. Some take the issue as a political tool to encounter the opposition, and some mixed up the issue with religious colors, particularly aiming at one community. In fact, all the ongoing discussions are necessary as India is a socially and politically diverse country.

The Modi government’s decision to increase the legal marriageable age of Indian women is appreciable. At the same time, we have to bring up some questions regarding the future of these girls too. Like, is she mentally prepared to get married to a stranger at this young age?

Until now, the Indian society has been unable to accept the concept of love marriage fully, or the physical constraints a woman has to face due to early marriage. We don’t think about how it affects her education and her choice to work. Is she free from domestic violence at her husband’s home? In any community, lowering the marriageable age from 18 is promoting a way of child marriage. It is not acceptable, and that is the truth.

Women in India respond to the new move by the Central Government regarding the increase in legal marriage age:

“Raising marriage age is necessary and good, but society needs to understand the meaning of consent in marriage. We need supplementary measures before implementing this new law. The government must focus on the measures to make women self-independent, rather than fixing up their marriage age. We have to reconsider the practical side of this new law; otherwise, increasing the marriage age is a good move,” said Anakha, an Assistant Professor.

“There is a chance that this could backfire. While it might level-up the gender gap a bit, I guess there should be a holistic approach to tackle under-age marriages—like addressing the causes at the grassroot level. Women are even denied their own agency,” Deepthi Prabha, a feminist.

“It seems progressive and empowering, but it’s not. Economically weaker sections and the marginalized will be directly affected by this, especially the Islamic community, Dalits and Adivasi section of the population. Already, there is a bunch of cases where Adivasi men are being imprisoned for marrying underage girls. It is, in fact, a part of their customs, and most people are unaware of the legal consequences. The law can also be misused for parents against a couple who get married against their will,” Arathy SB, Freelance Writer.

“On the surface level, this is a good change. Increasing the age does not magically erase, nor does it question the inequalities in marriage and between genders in our society. The real question is, despite the age, does the girl get a say in if, who, when and how she wants to marry? We need proper laws against forceful marriages. If the Government increases the age from 18 to 21, still people will continue to ask “Hey, why don’t you get married, you are 18?” This perception needs to change first. The marital rape-related issues won’t disappear either, after all,” Rabeeha Abdu Rahim, Copy Writer.

For the moral policing brigade, the term ‘Partner’ and ‘Boyfriend’ seem to be disgusting—as they are fully addicted to the so-called “disciplined culture’, where they can violate a person’s privacy at any cost. But what does the term ‘consent’ mean to you? According to Google, it means “Permission for something to happen or agreement to do something.”

Child marriage is a crime in India for decades now. In fact, forcible marriage, without the consent of a woman, is also considered a social crime. Secondly, this ‘right to choose’ that the feminists’ theory and the Indian Constitution talk about is a woman’s right to choose her partner along with  protecting and valuing her privacy. However, the marriage acts existing in every prominent religion in India indirectly break this freedom at the root level. Is that a sign of existing patriarchal mindset of religion and caste?

However, the role of Indian women in deciding their age of marriage is crucial and pivotal. According to the Indian Constitution, she has the full constitutional right to take up this decision on her own after the age of 18. The age 18 is a universal age which indicates a person’s adulthood; it is legal. So, can you think of a situation where you are getting married before the age of 18 or at 18? Did you ever try to think of the mental trauma that a girl goes through when she has to marry without her consent?

close up of a young girl in bridal clothes
Representational image

According to UNICEF India’s latest report, at least 1.5 million girls under 18 years of age are getting married in India. This makes India home to the largest number of child brides in the world with a 3rd of the global total. Nearly 16% of adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 are currently married. Soumya Ghosh, an economist from SBI, believes that marriage at such a young age affects the economy and can lead to an inter-generational cycle of poverty.

Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 sets marriage age for women at 18 and men’s at 21, under these ages, marriage is valid but voidable.

At this point, the Government and higher officials have to think of effective ways to tackle underage marriages. Such marriages would lead to girls dropping out of schools and colleges. These girls are likely to experience domestic violence at a very young age as well, which will psychologically and physically affect them. Early pregnancies and lack of awareness regarding their sexual and reproductive rights will also affect these girls adversely. We barely know about these issues of early marriage. So, while raising the legal marriage age of women, the important task to raise all of these issues stays with the Indian society, i.e., us. People in India need to change their mindset when dealing with or talking about marriage.

Women’s right to choose their partner—this is what India is missing. In a recent article on increasing legal marriage age of women, there was a point that “it is the wish of the parents who aspire for their children to get married at ‘ripe age’.” What does this ‘ripe age’ indicate? When you believe that 18 years of age represents a person’s adulthood, you should also try to respect his/her freedom to choose that ‘ripe age’. If they don’t want to get married at all or if they want to marry a person from the same sex, it’s their decision! Indian parents need to accept their children’s decision by putting aside their sentiments. They should respect their children as individuals who have the full constitutional right to live freely in India.

It is crucial to analyze why everyone in this nation wants to talk about ‘Women’s marriage age’, why is no one talking about men’s marriageable age? A patriarchal society always needs to put a woman at the center of attention, where they can completely ignore her basic human rights. A sympathetic approach from a male-dominated society will not do any good to womanhood.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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