Pressure, from organisations and advocacy groups from across the country, is mounting against the government's proposal of increasing the minimum age of marriage of women.
Among the most severe critics are some young women themselves working on the ground against the illegal practice of child marriages. Many of them describe the idea of increasing the minimum age as ‘regressive’.
A task force to examine the minimum age was set up on June 2 by the Union Ministry for Women and Child Development. On August 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the task force would work on redefining the minimum age of marriage for women. “We have set up a committee to reconsider the minimum age for marriage of our daughters. We will take an appropriate decision after the committee submits its report,” Modi said as part of his Independence Day speech.
At present, the law on marriage prescribes a minimum age of 21 years for men and 18 years for women. Many submissions have been made to the task force warning about the adverse effects of increasing the minimum marriageable age for women since the panel was announced. Among those submissions is a report titled ‘Young Voices: National Working Group’, which was based on consultation with 2,500 young people across the country.
The report, which has been endorsed by over 100 civil workers and organisations, places several arguments against government’s proposal. The report says, “The root causes of early and child marriage are poverty, norms around centrality of marriage, patriarchy and control over girls’ sexuality. A law to change the age of marriage does not address all these causes.”
In a media interaction held on Monday, two young women who were among the voices behind the report and work on the ground against child marriages, shared their views. Mamata Jangid, who works as a football coach for girls in Rajasthan, said, “Lots of girls like me, who are working on the ground, believe that increasing the minimum age is a regressive move. If child marriages are not being prevented now, how will increasing the minimum age help?”
“I have been working on the issue of health for the past two years in about 50 villages. I have seen there and in my own village that girls are forced into early marriage because of lack of good secondary school facilities, not the other way round. The government should instead focus on expanding schools beyond standards fifth and eighth, and on spreading awareness.”
Priyanka Murmu, who works against the social menace in Jharkhand, said her state had the second highest number of minor marriages cases in the country, while the education system in Jharkhand was among worst in the country. “Ever since we came to know about this proposal, we have been raising our voice in all forums. I spoke against it in my submission to the task force. I told them that many parents from poor families consider their daughters to be a burden. If minimum age of marriage of women is increased, they are unlikely to wait for three more years and that incidents of child marriage could increase,” Murmu said.
Experts in the domain voice similar concerns. “A vast majority of the Indian women are married before the age of 21 and nearly 20% are married before the age of 17. If the minimum age is increased by three years, there will be unintended consequences. We could see an increase in dowry and consequently an increase in child marriages,” said Mary E John, senior fellow, Centre for Women’s Development Studies.
The ‘Young Voices’ report also quotes a person expressing concern that an amendment in the law could see a rise in cases of female foeticide. Another issue flagged in the report was the worsening situation of young women due to the distress caused by Covid-19 pandemic. “COVID-19 has pushed many girls out of schools; distress reverse migration has brought back many girls to the villages, they are all now potential brides, overnight. Many young people are vocal about lack of safety nets for impoverished families - and they urge the government to address these first. If that is not done, what is the use of increasing the age of marriage on paper?” the report said.