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Raising marital age of women: Smashing patriarchy or further regression?

  • IASbaba
  • January 18, 2022
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(Down to Earth: Governance)


Jan 6: Raising marital age of women: Smashing patriarchy or further regression? – https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/governance/raising-marital-age-of-women-smashing-patriarchy-or-further-regression–81009 

TOPIC:

  • GS-1: Society (Women’s Issues)
  • GS-2: Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation.

Raising marital age of women: Smashing patriarchy or further regression?

In News: The Union government has decided to raise the marital age of women to 21 years from 18 years.

  • By amending the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA), 2006 and other personal law, the legal age of marriage of women will be raised rom 18 to 21 years.
  • Cited health implications for women with regard to the age of motherhood, maternal mortality rate (MMR), malnutrition and other allied concerns
  • Based on recommendations of the NITI Aayog task force headed by Jaya Jaitly set up in June, 2021. 
  • The task force was set up to re-examine the age of marriage and its correlation to health and social indices such as infant mortality, maternal mortality, and nutrition levels among mothers and children.

Other Key Recommendations 

  • The government to look into increasing access to schools and colleges for girls, including their transportation to these institutes from far-flung areas. 
  • Skill and business training has also been recommended, as has sex education in schools.
  • These deliveries must come first, as, unless they are implemented and women are empowered, the law will not be as effective.
  • An awareness campaign to be undertaken on a massive scale on the increase in age of marriage, and to encourage social acceptance of the new legislation, which they have said would be far more effective than coercive measures.

What is the minimum age of marriage?

  • Personal laws that govern marriage and other personal practices for communities prescribe certain criteria for marriage, including age of the bride and groom. 
  • For example, Section 5(iii) of The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, sets a minimum age of 18 for the bride and 21 for the groom. This is the same for Christians under the Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872 and the Special Marriage Act.
  • For Muslims, the criterion is attaining puberty, which is assumed when the bride or groom turns 15.

Note: The minimum age of marriage was prescribed for the first time by the law known as the Sarda Act, 1929. It was later renamed as the Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA), 1929.

Why is there a minimum age?

  • To outlaw child marriages and prevent the abuse of minors.
  • This is done through special legislation such as the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012. 
  • Under the Child Marriage Prevention Act, any marriage below the prescribed age is illegal and the perpetrators of a forced child marriage can be punished.

Against the decision

  • Child and women’s rights activists, as well as population and family planning experts have not been in favour of increasing the age of marriage for women on the basis that such legislation would push a large portion of the population into illegal marriages.
  • They have contended that even with the legal age of marriage for women being kept at 18 years, child marriages continue in India and a decrease in such marriages has not been because of the existing law but because of increase in girl’s education and employment opportunities.

The claims or arguments provided by the officials in favour of this law lack statistical evidence from the past as well as the present.

  • For instance, the age of Indian women was increased to 18 years from 16 years in 1978, with the sole objective of providing them better access to health and education. That goal has not been achieved even after four decades.
  • Some 23 per cent of women marry before they turn 18 (National Family Health Survey-5, 2019–21). This highlights the failure of the government in achieving its goal of providing better opportunities for girls in backward and poverty-stricken areas, along with better healthcare facilities.
  • Despite the Child Marriage Prohibition Act, India ranks 14th-highest in rate of prevalence of child marriage. 
  • The country ranks 140 out of 153 countries in terms of the gender gap index, according to the Global Gender Gap Report 2021.
  • Experts noted that 70% of early marriages take place in deprived communities such as SCs and STs, and said the law will simply push these marriages underground instead of preventing them. 
  • Rural women will be affected more than urban women. According to NFHS 4, the median age at first marriage (age 25-49) for urban women (19.8) is 1.7 years more than that for rural women (18.1).

Elephant in the Room: Just one of the 31-member parliamentary panel examining the law to raise the marital age is a woman. This itself is enough to highlight how decision-making powers are still in the hands of the men in our country and there are miles to go in order to achieve gender equality in its true form.

How marriage age and women’s health are linked?

Preventing early marriage can reduce the maternal mortality ratio and infant mortality ratio, according to Dipa Sinha, professor of economics at Ambedkar University. 

  • At present, the maternal mortality ratio — the number of maternal deaths for every 100,000 children born — is 145. 
  • India’s infant mortality ratio shows that 30 of every 1,000 children born in a year die before the age of one. Both these indicators in India are the highest among the BRICS economies.
  • Young mothers are more susceptible to anaemia. More than half the women of reproductive age (15-49 years) in India are anaemic. The prevalence of anaemia among women has consistently been high over the last 20 years.

The Way Forward

Legislation, education and government action must be used together to help families keep teenage girls in school. 

  • Need to promote gender equity from all aspects: 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. 
  • Reduce the judgment: We need rigorous and genuine efforts to uplift the social status of women and provide a comfortable space where they can live freely, without the fear of being judged or being under constant scrutiny.  
  • Increased access and accessibility to Education at all levels: Empowerment of women through education should be a priority irrespective of the law.
  • Main causes need to be dealt with first: Limited access to education and economic prospects, and security concerns are the known reasons for early marriage. If the main causes of early marriage are not addressed, a law will not be enough to delay marriage among girls.

Can you answer the following questions?

  1. Is it right to increase the age of marriage of women to 21? Comment.

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