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Raising Age Of Marriage For Women From 18 To 21? Not A Good Idea At All

This post is a part of Kaksha Crisis, a campaign supported by Malala Fund to demand for dialogue around the provisions in the New Education Policy 2020. Click here to find out more.

Natasha has over two decades of experience in working with underserved communities, adolescents, youth from marginalised backgrounds, especially in Education and Livelihoods. She has led programmes that reached out to over 150,000 adolescents and youth across 6 states. She is passionate about gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. She is a mother of two teenage feminists, an avid reader and a published writer. She describes herself as a dog lover, a tree hugger and a coffee addict.

The Union Cabinet has cleared a proposal to raise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 and will be introducing a bill seeking the Amendment soon. A lot of people seem to think this will miraculously lead to the empowerment of women, but what is the ground reality? Is this really such an “empowering” move?

The minimum age of marriage for women was raised to 18 years in 1978, but it is estimated that nearly 30% of women in India today were married before legal age*. Though some argue that the percentage of “registered” underage marriages remains less than 5%, the reality is that most marriages in India are not even registered, so that figure does not give an accurate picture. This clearly shows that the law is not an adequate deterrent against child marriage.

The new legislation will lead to an increase in the number of women who will be married before (the new) legal age. Representational image.

Why Are Girls Married Before The Age Of 18?

There are many reasons why a girl is married off before the age of 18, and lack of awareness about the legal age of marriage is not one of them.

In extremely poor families, a girl is often given in marriage so the family has one less mouth to feed. Poverty is also the main reason why the number of documented and undocumented cases of child marriage went up by as much as 50% during the lockdown and the subsequent economic slowdown.

In communities where marriage is treated as the ultimate objective and young women are not encouraged to work outside the home, families get them married as soon as they find a suitable groom. The informal search begins soon after the young woman attains puberty, and the marriage is solemnised after finishing class 10 or class 12. In some cases, the families wait till she turns 18, but if the family of groom is not willing to wait, the law does not act as a deterrent.

In households where both parents go out to work, unless there are safe after-school activities, the young woman is forced to stay at home alone for a few hours till her parents return. Parents recognise this she is vulnerable to sexual assault, and think that the solution is to get her married at the earliest.

This often happens in rural and tribal communities where you see cases of young women doing exceptionally well academically as long as they are in the local village school, but who drop out to get married as soon as they need to travel to a nearby village/ town to continue their education.

 

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There are many traditional occupations where the man is assisted by his partner (to give a few examples- wives of toddy tappers make and sell jaggery, wives of weavers assist in the preparatory process, sugarcane harvesting requires a couple to work in tandem), and in these communities, women are necessarily married early.

Even in households where women typically complete their graduation before getting married, if the family suspects that a young woman may be in a relationship with someone they deem “unsuitable”, they will quickly get her married off to the first man that they can find.

In such cases, in fact, the legal age of marriage (whether 18 or 21) works against her. She will need to wait to attain that age to do what she wants to, but won’t be able to for fear her parents will have the marriage annulled otherwise.

In fact, the use of the term “married off”, instead of “married”, itself highlights the root cause- the unmarried young woman is perceived as a liability, which is to be kept “safe” till she can be handed over to another family in marriage.

There is also a societal expectation for ‘good’ marriages, which often also pushes young women into early marriages.

A ‘good marriage’ is a combination of whichever of these the family thinks is most necessary – a family that commands respect either because they are well off, or a well-known family or a well-educated family; or a groom who is well educated, settled professionally. Sometimes the family also looks at other factors like “are there any unmarried sisters- if yes, the burden of marrying them may come on the couple”. Often what the family expects also plays a part.

All these are subjective and are actually quite demeaning for both the bride and groom.

guwahati high court decision about marriage
प्रतीकात्मक तस्वीर

Will Raising The Legal Age Of Marriage Impact The Age At Which Young Women Are Married?

Given that the root cause of early marriage (marriage between the age 15 to 18) is threefoldlack of value placed on education, concern for the safety of the young woman, the societal expectation for ‘good’ marriages– will increasing the legal age of marriage from 18 to 21 lead to a corresponding increase in age of marriage? Experience from the ground suggests not.

Take, for example, a young woman from a family where women are typically married at the age of 18 after they graduate from high school. The expectation of the lawmakers is that those families will now let the young woman pursue her undergraduate studies, so she is armed with a bachelor’s degree before marriage.

In reality, however, the family may not want her to travel long distances to go to college. They may also fear that she will potentially “misuse” the freedom that college will give her. They will certainly worry about how she would be “overqualified” for marriage if she finishes her graduation.

The legislation is unlikely to achieve the stated objective for her- she will either be kept home for three years or married off before the legal age of marriage.

There are communities where women start “seeing” potential grooms from the time they are 19 or 20. With the new legislation, in these cases, all that will change is that the marriage will be “finalised” early, and the wedding put off till soon after the woman turns 21. It is unlikely to stop the demeaning process of “seeing” grooms that young women are subject to, nor will it give them an opportunity to take up a job before marriage.

Yes, young women will be armed with an undergraduate degree before marriage, but if there is an extremely good match, it remains to be seen if the parents will let the match go, so she can finish her graduation.

 

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In fact, this legislation may even lead to an increase in the number of women being married before they reach the age of 18. In rural and urban communities where there is no school/ college in the immediate vicinity, girls drop out of school after class 10 (or 8).

If the legal age of marriage is 18, the families of these girls might wait for two years to solemnise their wedding. However, if the legal age is raised to 21, they would certainly not want to wait five years and would get her married even before she turns 18.

All that the new legislation will lead to is an increase in the number of women who will be married before (the new) legal age, and this will make the woman even more vulnerable than she now is.

Child marriage and young girls
The legislation that raises the marriageable age of women from 18 to 21 years will take away the agency of the young woman. Representational image.

Will The New Law Adversely Affect Women In Any Way?

One can argue, as many have, that even if the proposed legislation does not automatically lead to the age of marriage going up, isn’t it better to have some legislation than none at all. Unfortunately, this line of argument doesn’t take into account the fact that the law can use used against women.

The proposed legislation will work against women who are in a relationship with someone who the family deems “unsuitable”. To avoid complications under the new law, the couple will necessarily have to wait till she turns 21 before getting married.

However, if the family suspects something, they can get the young woman forcibly married even before she reaches legal age. Past experience has shown that even if a third party tries to register a case against the family of the young woman, they do not get the support of the authorities.

The legislation will, therefore, take away the agency of the young woman.

A young woman married before legal age is more vulnerable to emotional, physical and sexual abuse in her marital home.

It will be hard for her to seek legal help, because of the fear that if she complains, a counter case can be made against her natal family for getting her married before the legal age. It could potentially be harder for her to access medical help during her pregnancy, or if she wants to terminate a pregnancy.

All this shows that the marginal utility of raising the minimum age of marriage from 18 to 21 is insignificant compared to the fact that it will make young women more vulnerable to potential abuse.

Child marriage in India happening
Educating and empowering young women so they develop sufficient agency to fight for their rights. Representational image.

What, Then, Is The Solution?

If legislation alone will not lead to an increase in the age of marriage, can anything be done to increase the age of marriage? Yes, a sustained campaign that works with multiple stakeholders can lead to social change. Such a campaign will work at three levels:

  • Educating and empowering young women so they develop sufficient agency to fight for their rights.
  • Awareness generation among the parents of young women, so they learn to recognise the need to educate their daughters and ensure that they are made economically and emotionally independent.
  • Acceptance at the community level that women are productive members of society, and that marriage need not be the end game for them.

Once this three-pronged approach is taken, and the community, the family and the young woman all understand the value of girls’ education and that a woman is as capable as a man in creating economic value, the age of marriage goes up organically. I have personally witnessed this in two communities where we worked on access to education over a sustained period.

In one rural community, the average age of marriage for girls was 14, which coincided with the end of schooling in the local government school. Once the girls were enrolled in high school in the nearest town, the number of child marriages dwindled.

After graduating from high school, many of the girls – who would otherwise have been married at 14 – enrolled in technical/ vocational courses, and the community was determined to not get them married till they were economically independent.

 

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The experience in an urban slum community was equally dramatic. Girls were earliest married at the age of 15 or 16, but after a few years of intervention, the average age of marriage shot up to above 20. In the said community, it is common to see families where the firstborn girl(s) were child brides, but their younger siblings are in college, and where mothers proudly declare, “We will get our daughter married only when she wants it.”

Child marriage is a battle that needs to be fought from a social perspective. Representational image.

But, Isn’t Some Law Better Than No Law?

One can certainly argue, as some do, that even if one young woman benefits from this legislation, it is worthwhile. However, that argument fades when you consider the fact that this legislation will certainly take away the agency of young women, and make them more vulnerable to emotional, sexual and physical abuse.

History has shown that enacting a law alone has not been enough to deter child marriage. What is needed is sustained behaviour change communication at the community level to ensure that the community recognises the value of educating and empowering the girl child.

This is a battle that needs to be fought from the social perspective.

The need is to create awareness that delaying marriage is beneficial for young women both from the perspective of reproductive health, and the perspective of giving them more time to get an education and become economically independent. Till that is achieved, all that the legislation will do is push more marriages under the radar.

___

* The numbers is an approximation. Among the reports that have been put out by reputed sources, estimates vary between 27% (UNICEF study) to 47% (ICRW, based on a small sample set).

The featured image is for representational purposes only.
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