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?
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.