A mother of a 17-year-old girl, a domestic help named Anita fears that if she doesn’t get her daughter married, someone will rape her. Anita knows getting her daughter married below the age of 18 is illegal in India but she says things are ‘very different’ on the ground. ‘When a girl grows into a young woman, all eyes are on her.’ While fear of her daughter’s safety is one concern, Anita, who earns few thousand rupees, says she has to think about how to collect funds for dowry of her daughter’s marriage. Anita’s story is one of every other household in India and violating laws of child marriage doesn’t seem to deter them. As a result child or underage marriage continues to be a reality in India.
Now, the Indian government is considering increasing the marriageable age of women in India from 18 to 21 years. The question to ask is – will increasing marriageable age reduce child marriage in India?
India accounts for the largest number of child brides in the world each year, even when the marriageable age of women in India is 18. Every day, 33,000 child brides are being married off world over, according to a report published by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). And so is raising the marriageable age a practical solution to deal with the impediments we are facing to stop child marriage?
We discussed the rising child marriage cases and the impact of raising marriageable age with lawyer Kudrat Dutta Chaudhary, who is a graduate of Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and is currently a gender specialist at Law Office of Robert B. Jobe.
The problem with the child marriage law
One of the major reasons why child marriage is still on the rise is that the law against child marriage does not declare it as null and void. The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006 states that child marriage is voidable only if the bride or the groom want to dissolve it. How will a girl file a complaint if she is not even aware that her marriage is illegal and she has legal rights to annul it? Will her parents and in-laws support her, even if she wants to?
Moreover, the option to repudiate the child marriage is valid only until the child bride is 20 years old and the child groom is 23. According to the National Family Health Survey of 2015-16, more than 26 per cent of women of age 20-24 were pregnant at 18 years old. Considering the stigma around a divorced woman and a single mother, will a pregnant woman be allowed to separate from her husband and nurture the child alone? As Kudrat Dutta also points out, there is no provision in the child marriage act that addresses what actions a pregnant woman is supposed to take to dissolve the marriage.
Reasons That Lead To An Increase In Child Marriage
Another major reason behind the prevalence of child marriage is poverty and the dowry system. Chaudhary says that in some Indian micro-cultures, less dowry is expected for younger girls and so poor families prefer to marry child brides. Even though, the Right to Education Act has made education free and compulsory for children only until the age of 14, girls are forced drop out of school after 14 and get married. Then one wonders even if the marriageable age is set up as 21, will things change?
Fear of a Girls’ Safety
The fear that the young and unmarried woman might get raped and stigmatised by the society force parents to marry them off as a child. “Sometimes the cultural norms outweigh the law in many situations, where parents feel they’d be stigmatised if they don’t marry their daughter by a certain age even if that means violating the law,” Chaudhary adds. The cases of rape have increased even more in the lockdown and the conviction rate remains as low as 27.2 per cent as per the NCRB 2018 data. 20 women die every day as a result of harassment over dowry.
And so child marriage is on the rise not because of the lower minimum marriageable age but because of the dominant patriarchal culture and mindsets, poor execution of pre-existing laws about marriage, education and women’s safety.
Raising Marriageable Age Alone Is Not Enough
How will increasing marriageable age alone stop families from forcing a woman to get married as a child rather than getting them educated? How will it ensure that a girl uses the child marriage law to oppose her parents? How will it put an end to the rape culture and dowry system that harms women even if they are married at the right age?
The government needs to strengthen the execution of pre-existing laws of dowry, child marriage and rape and educate women so that they can exercise their legal rights. It is true that women in India are legally empowered but without eduction, they will not be able to exercise the rights. Moreover, if she is threatened to death by the patriarchal society if she tries to exercise them, how will increasing marriageable age help her?