Shireen Jejeebhoy writes: Women’s empowerment, given as the rationale behind the move, requires removing structural inequalities, not just a waving of the legislative wand
Growing evidence shows, disturbingly, that the number of child marriages may have increased in many states during the pandemic and lockdown periods.
The news that the Union Cabinet has cleared the move to raise the legal minimum age at marriage for women to 21, and will introduce an amendment to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act comes as a blow to women’s rights. The move is neither feasible, nor grounded in evidence, nor respectful of women’s rights.
Why isn’t it feasible? The law prohibiting marriage below the age of 18 has been in effect in some form since the 1900s, yet child marriage has persisted virtually undeterred until 2005 when almost half of all women aged 20-24 had married below the legal minimum age. By 2015-16, this proportion declined significantly to 27 per cent and more modestly to 23 per cent by 2019-20 (NFHS4, NFHS5) — an impressive shift that is largely attributable to social changes such as greater access to education and expanding aspirations. Even though more than one in five marriages took place below age 18, hardly any violations of the Act appear in our criminal records. Moreover, the magnitude of the population of women of marriageable age who will be affected is immense, with over 60 per cent (more than three in five women) marrying before 21. So while we have failed to even enforce a law against marriage before age 18, it is hardly feasible that we can succeed in enforcing a law that expands the age range, and affects such a vast canvas of India’s population.
The move is, moreover, not justified by evidence. Notably, the stated rationale for raising the age of marriage, which incidentally had stemmed in 2020 from an apparent concern for “the imperatives of lowering maternal mortality, improving nutritional levels and related issues” has now been modified as necessary for “the empowerment of women”. Of course, it is true that those marrying at the age of 21 and later are healthier, better nourished, better educated, and have better career opportunities than those experiencing child marriage. But are they so advantaged because they delayed their marriages, or because they come from better-off households, did not have to discontinue their education prematurely, have at least one better-educated parent, and do not come from socially excluded castes and tribes? The evidence suggests the latter. The two groups — early and late marrying — are not comparable. As Mary John notes, while almost half (45 per cent) of those belonging to the poorest households married in childhood (before 18), just one in 10 (10 per cent) of women from the wealthiest households did so. Moreover, evidence gathered by demographer Ann Blanc and others, suggests it is giving birth in adolescence (the ages at which those who marry below 18 may experience pregnancy) that is unsafe, and maternal mortality after 18 is by far the lowest.https://images.indianexpress.com/2020/08/1×1.png
Growing evidence shows, disturbingly, that the number of child marriages (under 18) may have increased in many states during the pandemic and lockdown periods, calling again for concerted government efforts to ensure adherence to the present law, rather than expending efforts to further raise the marriage age.
Most of all, as in the case of the love jihad laws, this move is one more attempt to deny young women their reproductive rights. Surveys in several states have observed that most women wish to marry only after they attain 18 (the legal minimum age at marriage in most countries globally). At the same time, romantic relations are increasingly taking place in adolescence (as in the world over) and some young women will certainly make an informed decision to marry before they are 21. Should they be denied this right as long as it is consensual? The comment of Jaya Jaitley, that the task force’s decision was enthusiastically supported by students of 16 universities and 15 NGOs, across all religions and by those most disadvantaged is simplistic, misleading and once again, generalising from a biased sample. Students of 16 universities and representatives of 15 NGOs are certainly not representative of young people or NGOs at large. University students are advantaged simply by virtue of having reached this milestone and hence are a select group. Moreover, relying on their view about an ideal age to marry quite likely neglects their perceptions about a woman’s right to make informed marriage decisions, including whether or not to marry between the ages of 18 and 20. Likewise, the 15 privileged NGOs cannot be said to represent NGOs at large, and certainly it appears that the NGO voices that were raised against this proposal in 2020 have remained unheard.
What is required to empower disadvantaged women and respect their reproductive rights is, therefore, not a simple waving of the legislative wand to raise the marriage age beyond 18. We require investments in reversing the fundamental structural disadvantages that women who marry early face. To truly empower them while respecting their reproductive rights, the government must invest far more in addressing issues of equity — measures that will enable the disadvantaged to complete their education, provide career counselling and encourage skilling and job placement, address safety issues of women in public places including public transportation, and change the perceptions of parents who are ultimately those who make marriage related decisions for a majority of women. Delays in the timing of marriage will then occur without the need for legislation.
This column first appeared in the print edition on December 22, 2021 under the title ‘Wrong on rights’. The writer is Director, Aksha Centre for Equity and Wellbeing, Mumbai