The 1978 amendment of the Sharda Act of 1929 has set the legal marriage age in India as 18 years old for women and 21 years for men. In a progressive move, the government of India has set up a task force to revise woman’s legal marriage age in India and drive its focus towards encouraging women education and empowerment.
According to the National Family Health Survey of 2015-16, 48 per cent of the women of the age group 20-24 were married at the age of 20 years old. Though the median age at which women have their first child has increased to twenty one, 26.1 per cent of women of age 20-24 were pregnant at 18 years old. This further led to a rise in the maternal and infant mortality rate due to complications in pregnancy and lack of awareness about child care.
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. There is a need to reassess the legal age for marriage in India as it determines a woman’s freedom to study further and be empowered before being burdened with early marriage and motherhood.
The aim of the government appointed ten-member task force is not only to reduce the maternal mortality rate and infant mortality rate in India but also to encourage female higher education and remove the gender parity being followed in the marital age of a man and a woman in India. To get a comprehensive idea of how this step of the government will impact the rate of female education and early marriage in Indian rural and urban space, SheThePeople.TV reached out to Mayank Mikhail Mukherjee, an advocate in Delhi High Court.
Increased Marital Age Will Open Up Opportunities For Women Education
When asked about the larger aim of the government’s move to raise the legal age for marriage of a woman in India, Advocate Mayank Mukherjee said, “The Government is very clear from its press release that their main aim is to care for women and the maternal mortality rate. Personally I believe it will also be beneficial from the viewpoint of maturity of the woman getting married.” Adding further, he said, “The move will also be beneficial as more women will be entering into the higher education space since societal pressure to get married at 18 would be reduced.”
Not surprisingly, the rate of early marriage of women in India has significantly reduced with an increased level of women education. NFHS-4 survey revealed that on an average only 2.4 per cent of women who gained higher education were married at an early age. While, among women who had no education, the average prevalence of child marriage was 30.8 per cent.
The Difference In Marital Age In Rural And Urban Space
One of the major reasons why revision of the legal age is needed, is the prevalence of child marriage in India. According to Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation the average age at which women are married in rural India is 21 while in Urban India it is 23. It is also important to note here that child marriage is more prevalent in rural (14.1 per cent) than in urban India (6.9 per cent) which only adds to the possibility of women being married at an early age.
Explaining the reason behind this gap, Advocate Mukherjee said, “In rural areas, the societal milieu promotes child marriage and enforcement against it is extremely low. Whereas in urban areas due to a different societal setup the society promotes education of the girl child which lowers the incidence of child marriage.”
Now since the government is planning to increase the marital age of women, what is the surety that the rural and urban areas will not flout the law and continue to marry their women at 18? “Flouters of any law will continue to flout with impunity until the enforcement of the law is increased, and there is societal change via societal pressure, education and awareness.”
The Overall Social And Cultural Impact Of The Move
Explaining further the social and cultural impact of the government’s decision to revise the legal age for marriage of a woman, he said, “If it has the intended impact, and women have more time to get educated, enter colleges and pursue higher education, I believe the entire dynamic of Indian society will have a huge overhaul for the better, especially in the lower economic classes, over the next two decades”. “More educated women mean a more egalitarian society and better-educated children. As a corollary, better-educated women mean a society with better civic sense. It is no secret that women are the driver of societal change and civic sense amongst the populace,” he added.