As proposed in the Union budget of the year 2020, the government of India has set up a task force to revise women’s legal age for marriage in India. While giving her budget speech in February 2020, the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman spoke about forming a task force that will review the legal minimum age of a woman’s marriage by studying its effect on the maternal mortality rate. Subsequently, a high-level committee was finally formed and has been asked to submit the recommendations by July 31.

Centre sets up a task force to examine the age of motherhood, imperatives of lowering MMR, improvement of nutritional levels and related issues.

While presenting the Union Budget, the finance minister had said, “Women’s age of marriage was increased from 15 years to 18 years in 1978 by amending erstwhile Sharda Act of 1929. As India progresses further, opportunities open up for women to pursue higher education and careers. There are imperatives of lowering MMR (maternal mortality rate) as well as improvement of nutrition levels. The entire issue about the age of a girl entering motherhood needs to be seen in this light. I propose to appoint a task force that will present its recommendations in six months’ time.”

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Following the announcement, the Ministry of Women and Child Development released an official statement on June 6, revealing, “The government of India, in a gazette notification issued on 4th June, 2020 has set up a task force to examine the age of motherhood, imperatives of lowering MMR, improvement of nutritional levels and related issues.” The task force will suggest ways to encourage higher education among women, explore the impact of marital age on infant mortality rate, maternal mortality rate, the mental health of the mother, nutritional status of both the mother and child, sex ratio at birth and child sex ratio. It will also come up with relevant amendments in the existing laws to implement its recommendations. Moreover, it will be provided with secretarial assistance by Niti Ayog.

According to UNICEF, India has the highest mortality rate for children aged below five years old. It alone accounts for one-fifth of under-five deaths worldwide, with 2.1 million deaths in 2006.

Why it matters

The risk of the health issues and deaths of young children is significantly higher in children born to mothers who are married at an early age, says an NCBI report. Another report states that for 2005-2006, 44.5 percent of women between the ages of 20-24 years in India reported to being married before 18 years of age. Furthermore, 22 percent of all the women in the age group 20-24 years were pregnant with their first child when they were just 18 years old.

The major cause of deaths of girls who are 15-19 years old is pregnancy-related complications. The number of women and girls in India who died due to issues during pregnancy and childbirth in the year 2017 was as high as 35000, though it has significantly decreased from 103,000 in 2000.  Women who are married and impregnated at a very early age lack the recourse to proper education and access to health care, antenatal care, skilled child delivery and the complete vaccination of the infants which explains the lack of child health care.

As per the 1978 amendment of the Sharda Act of 1929, the marital age of women in India remains 18 while for men it is 21 years. The task force, therefore, will also focus on removing the gender parity in the marital age and raising the women’s marital age from 18 to 21 years, Tribune India reported.

Who is on the task force

The ten-member task force will be headed by former Samata Party president Jaya Jaitly and will include as a member VK Paul from NITI Ayog.  Ex-officio members of the task force will be the secretaries of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Women and Child Development, Department of Higher Education, Department of School Education and Literacy, Legislative Departments. Other independent members include Najma Akhtar (New Delhi); Vasudha Kamath (Maharashtra); and Dipti Shah (Gujarat).

Picture Credit: Alamy

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