By Yaqoob Murtaza
Recently, the Centre has decided to raise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years to reduce maternal mortality and undernutrition as well as to provide better opportunities for them to educate and to empower themselves. Various organizations and women’s rights activists have opposed this move but on the other hand, many have supported this. There are various social and legal reasons to oppose this bill and why the measure will not really address issues women have been facing for a long time.
Does raising age of marriage for girls solve the problem?
The logic given by the members of ruling party behind increasing the legal age of marriage of women is that they can be provided opportunities to educate themselves and to be financially stable. They argued that this is a good step in the right direction for gender equality. so first and foremost, we have to see what should be the essential ingredients to declare a girl fit for marriage? whether it should be physical and mental fitness or there should also be financial autonomy as an essential ingredient? So, in my opinion, first two are and should be necessary conditions for marriage but to call financial stability of a girl as an essential ingredient would be irrational. Why is it so? This is because what is the guarantee that a girl would financially be stable at the age of 21 years?
Whether this bill will solve social problems related to women?
To raise marriage age of women will not help us to reduce social problems of women rather it will create unhealthy relationship among youths which will ultimately be immoral and may lead to the destruction of basis on which our social and cultural structures stand. Ironically it will increase fear in the minds of parents for the safety of their unmarried daughters.
The legal age of marriage was raised from 16 to 18 in 1978 in order to provide better opportunities for women’s education and improve their health. In this regard the law for prohibition of child marriage has been enacted but in the last four decades we have seen that the practice of child marriage is still existing in our society especially in rural areas it is very common practice and parents don’t feel bad to do so because they are not aware of consequences.
The latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS 5 2019–’21) indicates that 40 years later, we still have an alarming rate of child marriages at 23%. This clearly shows the failure on the part of the government to provide opportunities for girls and now how it is talking about gender equality just by increasing marriage age?
Additionally, the figure of child marriage goes up in various states. For instance, as per national Family Health Survey report, the percentage of women in 20–24-year age group who were married before turning 18 is 40.8 % in Bihar, in West Bengal it is 41.6 % and in Tripura it is 40.1 per cent. This clearly shows that only changing the age of marriage of women will not be deterrent and it will never solve their problems.
I come from rural area. I know there are several reasons for why parents prefer early marriage of their daughters. Poverty is one the leading reasons there, lake of awareness is another reason. Mostly people even don’t know that there is a law that prohibits child marriage. They don’t know what will be the impact of early marriage on the health of their daughters. Another reason is that parents have fear that if their daughters cross 20 years of age, they will be rejected and thus will not get better proposal for their marriage.
Similarly, dowry was prohibited and the dowry prohibition Act 1961 has been enacted in this respect but still dowry demand is prevailing in our society and it seems to be accepted practice from cities to villages. Legislation did not change the mindset of the society and it couldn’t happen because proper implementation has not been done. Society demands proper implementation rather to create new legislation.
Legal impact of the bill
Now let’s see what will be the legal impact of this bill. So, if a girl is major at the age of 18 years, she has all rights to enjoy her life then why there should be denial for three years i.e., from 18 to 21 years? If the government is wishing to make gender equality, then why it is not talking to reduce the marriage age of a boy from 21 to 18 years? Reduce the legal age of marriage of a boy then they both -boys & girls- will come on equal footing.
Another serious aspect is that as the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 and POCSO Act 2012 have been misused, this is also a fear that it will be misused to harass eloping couples and they will be trapped under various serious criminal charges. This move of government is neither good nor in favour of a girl.
Another aspect is that if a girl married at the age of 19 or 20 faces matrimonial issues and she approaches the court to get remedy, her husband may plead that the marriage is not valid and she is devoid of rights. In such situation she will not get any remedy from court. This is deeply a cause of grave concern and will bring various bad consequences.
Therefore, there is need to strengthen the right to choose which the constitution of India has guaranteed to everyone. This is unfortunate that till today in rural areas girls hardly have free right to choose their life partner. For Them, the choice of their parents and the decision of family members will be final and willingly or unwillingly they have to accept that. Young Voices: National Working Group’ in its survey report rightly said “…Increasing the age of marriage will either harm or have no impact by itself unless the root causes of women’s disempowerment are addressed.
(The writer is a student of law at Aligarh Muslim University)