The Indian government is planning to raise the marriageable age of women beyond 18 and make it 21, equal to that of men. While this is being considered as a step towards women empowerment, the question that must be asked – will shifting the age alone change the patriarchal mindset in the society that considers women only a burden or paraya dhan? Will this increase in marriageable age eradicate the male-child preference which is a root of many crimes against women in India?
According to the United Nations Population Fund, India accounts for 45.8 million of the world’s 142.6 million missing females over the past 50 years. These girl children were either abandoned or killed after or before their birth. This is despite the fact that prenatal sex-screening, female foeticide and infanticide are legally banned in India. The major reason behind this is that sons are preferred over daughters in education, employment, freedom and as the rightful heir of the family.
Women in Indian families are brought up as unwanted daughters. They are objectified as a burden or paraya dhan whose ultimate aim is to get married and go to their in-laws’ house. Which is why they are dropped out of the school, divested of minimum nutrition and healthcare and married off as soon as they get the desired suitor, irrespective of the fact whether they are a minor or not. Women are being ravaged by these inequalities even when the constitution lays down in clear words that all human are equal and have equal rights to be employed, educated and healthy.
So how will an additional amendment in the law ensure that people will follow it? Even if the government increases the marriageable age, will they be able to curb the rates of female foeticide in India? Will merely increasing the marriageable age help parents understand that daughters aren’t a burden on the families?
Why Rate Of Female Foeticide Might Not See A Dip
Some experts believe an increase in marriageable age is only going to increase the rates of female foeticide. Explaining the reason behind this lawyer Kudrat Dutta Chaudhry told SheThePeople that if the marriageable age is increased further, parents will have to nurture their daughters and pay for their education and life for a longer tenure. “This would especially be true for rural households, where a girl child drops out of school when she reaches puberty and her parents start looking for a suitable match for her. There are no avenues to earn and the acceptance of a woman going to the city (unless the entire family moves) and earning is next to nothing,” she added.
Will The Increase In Marriageable Age Put An End To The Stereotypes Of Paraya Dhan?
Even if parents are willing to educate their girls and look after their health, the high cost of education and healthcare system becomes an impediment. International Journal of Population Research published a research paper claiming that Indian families tend to spend less on food and healthcare of women compared to men. And now the cost of education and healthcare service is likely to increase further. The Economic Survey of 2019 claimed that the cost of health care per-person is likely to increase at double the rate of healthcare inflation. There has been a steep rise in the cost of healthcare products compared to healthcare services.
Besides healthcare, rising costs of education also deters parents to put daughters in schools as they often prefer that if one child must study, it should be the boy. According to CARE, in the last decade, the cost of education per student from primary to post-graduate courses increased fourfold to Rs 8,331 per year. The cost of professional course saw a rise of 52 per cent.
Ultimately, parents become reluctant to spend so much money on a daughter who is after all a paraya dhan and her education and empowerment are not going to support the parents but the in-laws.
Dowry System Rampant in India
Many studies show, prevalence of dowry system makes women a financial burden on their families. The right time for a woman to get married is when the parents are capable of paying the dowry and not when the woman is physically and mentally ready. This is more often when they are young than 18. If the marriageable age is increased, the parents will automatically become even more reluctant to have a girl child. Because the dominant mindset is that paying for a woman’s marriage is more important than financing her education.
What Should Be The Government’s Focus?
I believe the starting point of this new thinking – of increasing the age for marriage – is a good step but looks like it’s not been thoroughly thought through. The government will need to do more in order to make the potential decision impactful. According to the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report published in 2019, India ranks 150th in terms of disparity in healthcare, 149th in providing equal employment opportunities and 112th in providing equal education. Therefore, the government also needs to strengthen women’s role in the economy, the education system, healthcare facilities and make them approachable to women.
There needs to be an awareness drive among families, both rural and urban, about providing their daughters with nutrition and healthcare facilities. Parents should also be taught to educate and empower their daughters rather than giving in to social pressure and marrying them off at an early age, against their choice. In the words of Chaudhary, the government’s focus “should be on ensuring that women are pursuing education and don’t drop out of school at a young age. The focus also needs to be on ensuring a safe environment, normalising women seeking employment and on creating opportunities for women in rural settings to be financially independent.”