Decision To Raise Women’s Marriageable Age: Delay Comes With A Heavy Cost

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On December 16, the Indian Union Cabinet finally approved the long-standing proposal of increasing the marriageable age for women from 18 to 21. Even if the proposal has been, accepted which is a sign of hope, it took almost a year for the government to go forward with the idea, despite it being an effective tool to empower women’s state in India.

The process is not over yet. Now, the central government will have to introduce amendments to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, the Special Marriage Act and the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955. Only are after these amendments are cleared, will the age of marriage be finally raised for women in India.

The initiative to raise a girl’s marriageable age from 18 to 21 was like a breath of fresh air over the foul stench of patriarchy. It was being hailed as a progressive move that will decrease the maternal mortality rate, increase the rate of higher education among women and encourage their empowerment. Although oppositions were made against the move, hands-down, it was one of the most progressive moves to have come from the government in the past many decades.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had mentioned the proposal to increase marriageable age for women during his Independence Day speech in 2020.

However, one does wonder, why has it taken so long for our system to realise the importance of raising the age of marriage for women? Why is the proposal hitting roadblocks even in this day and age? Yes, amendments of bills, drafting of proposals etc., do take time, but with each passing day, we are losing more girls to regressive practices like early marriage and motherhood, that set women up for a life of financial dependency, malnutrition, mental exhaustion due to early motherhood and household duties.

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Early marriage continues to plague women

Pooja’s marriage was set in June 2020. She is my acquaintance. I was enraged by her early marriage because she had not even turned 18. She was still a child struggling to understand LCM and HCF. But to “settle” her down, her mother fixed her marriage with an older and supposedly educated man. But when the government announced to increase the marriageable age, I happily told Pooja and her mother that her marriage would be deemed as illegal. Pooja’s mother, under the fear of being arrested, somehow delayed her marriage. But because the government failed to speed up the process, Pooja was married off as soon as she turned 18. Now she is just an uneducated woman married early.

Like Pooja, many other girls are being married off every single day, while various political lobbies went back and forth over the proposal in this past one year. Without any legal obstacle, early marriage continues to be a glaring reality today. As per the recent NFHS-5 data, every four women of age 20-25 reported having been married before they turned 18. Even though child marriage is on a decline, India remains to report one of the highest number of child marriages in the world. Keep in mind that these numbers are based on only the reported cases. The unreported cases are most of the time higher.

Does our political system- governments of past and present and elected leaders have any explanation for the lives of the women that have been risked with this delay? Who will take the accountability for lives lost to early motherhood, bodies that bore the brunt of malnourishment and opportunities that were lost when pens were traded for utensils.

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But can the blame be entirely dumped on ur political and legal system? Do we the citizens understand the importance of this proposed change? Do we elect leaders who take women’s issues seriously? Is it not true that in the past leaders’ responses towards the increasing marriageable age of women have been bizarre? Remember when a former minister of Madhya Pradesh said that there is no need to increase women’s marriageable age and that women should be married at the age of 15 itself? We need to compel the authorities to understand the urgency of the change.

Secondly, we have to remember that early marriage is a social evil, not a political one. while the government is obliged to weed out such practices from our society for the wellbeing of women, we too must acknowledge our accountability. How many of us try and create awareness about ill-effects of early marriage in our immediate society?

In conclusion,  I want is to urge the government to speed up the process before more girls give in to the pressure of early marriage whilst addressing the question of increasing women’s education, women’s minimum age to have sex and their freedom to make decisions. But the government shouldn’t stop with bringing in a legal change. We need a drive to create awareness on the issue at every level in our society, so that early marriage is discouraged, not just out of fear of legal repercussions, but due to knowledge about its harmful impacts on women too.

Views expressed are the author’s own.