Law To Raise Marriage Age
Let me begin with a disclaimer: I am neither a member of BJP nor of any of its associate Sangh organizations like RSS or VHP or Bajrang Dal or any other organization nor have I got anything to do with them in any manner. Yet I must be candid enough to concede gracefully that if there is one key issue on which I am entirely on the same page as the PM and Centre is that of raising the marriage age of women which is definitely most commendable even though I personally feel that 25 should be the age of marriage if not 30 or between 25 and 30 as that will give an opportunity to pursue her dream of her choice and not just get goaded to the whims and fancies of her husband, her in-laws and other relatives of husband. Can any person after robustly and dispassionately analyzing it ever try to justify the marriage of women at a very early age? The answer is definitely not!
On an unflattering note, Centre has taken the right decision to raise the age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 as we see in case of men thus bringing about parity between both the genders. Why on earth should there be discrimination between men and women? Why should there be not same age for both men and women?
In hindsight, it may be recalled that in 2020 in her Budget speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had announced that the Government would set up a task force to look into the age of a girl entering motherhood with a larger objective of lower maternal mortality rates, improve nutrition levels as also to ensure opportunities to women to pursue higher education and careers. Keeping these goals in mind, we saw how a panel headed by former Samata Party chief – Jaya Jaitley was set up in June 2020 and which submitted its report in December 2020. The other members in the panel were VK paul, member (health) NITI Aayog; the secretaries of the higher education, school education, health, women and child development, legislative departments apart from academicians like Najma Akhtar, Vasudha Kamat and Dipti Shah. One of the key recommendations that was made by Jaya Jaitley was pertaining to raising the age of marriage.
Of course, Jaya Jaitley was hundred percent right in pointing out in simple, straightforward and suave language that, “If we talk about gender equity and gender empowerment in every field, we cannot leave marriage out because this is a very odd message that a girl can be fit to be married at 18 that cuts away her opportunity to go to college and the man has the opportunity to prepare himself for life and earning up to 21 years.”
It may be recalled that the Union Cabinet had on December 15 cleared the proposal to raise the minimum age of marriage for women which is definitely one of the most commendable decision taken since independence. Smriti Irani who is Minister of Women and Child Development in India minced just no words to say pointblank while countering the opposition’s vociferous protests and while introducing the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021 in Lok Sabha that, “After so many years of Independence, men and women need equal rights in matrimony. This amendment gives equality to men and women in allowing both to marry at 21. Our research shows that 21 lakh (2.1 million) child marriages had to be stopped and many underage girls were found pregnant. You are stopping women from their right to equality. The age of marriage should be uniformly applicable to all religions, caste, creed, overriding any custom or law that seeks to discriminate against women.”
To be sure, Smriti Irani could not resist herself from acknowledging most candidly that, “We are in our democracy 75 years late in providing equal rights to men and women to enter into matrimony. In the 19th century, the age of marriage of girls was 10. Later it was increased to 12 by the Age of Consent Bill, 1927. In 1940, this was raised from 12 to 14. In 1978, girls could be married at the age of 15.” It must be also mentioned here that the age of marriage for women was increased from 15 to 18 in 1978 by amending the erstwhile Sharda Act of 1929 named after its sponsor Harbilas Sarda. Ms Irani also added that, “Today, for the first time both men and women on the basis of equality can take a decision to get married at the age of 21. From 2015 until 2020 we have stopped 20 lakh child marriages, according to research. The NFHS-5 data tell us that nearly 7% of girls between the age of 15 and 18 have been found pregnant and 23% girls under 15 were married though the law does not permit it.”
Ms Irani also said that, “The Bill would also amend the Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1972; the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, 1936; the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937; the Special Marriage Act, 1954; the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955; and the Foreign Marriage Act, 1956.”
It deserves mentioning here that the Centre has relied upon a Supreme Court ruling titled Independent Thought vs Union of India that was delivered on October 11, 2017 during a marital rape exemption case. In this most commendable, courageous and convincing judgment, the Apex Court had observed forthrightly that, “Law cannot be hidebound and static. It has to evolve and change with the needs of society. Recognising these factors, the Parliament increased the minimum age for marriage.” It held that, “The state is entitled and empowered to fix the age of consent. The state can make reasonable classification but while making any classification it must show that the classification has been made with the object of achieving a certain end. The classification must have a reasonable nexus with the object sought to be achieved.”
Interestingly enough, the Law Commission of India in August 2018 had also observed in its consultation paper on reform of family law that, “The age of majority must be recognized uniformly as the legal age of marriage for men and women alike as is determined by the Indian Majority Act, 1875 i.e. eighteen years of age.” The said paper added that, “The difference in age for husband and wife has no basis in law as spouses entering into a marriage are by all means equals and their partnership must also be between equals.” Now that the age for men is 21 then why should the age for women remain at 18 and not increased to 21? The international treaty titled “Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women” (CEDAW), also calls for the abolition of laws that assume women have a different physical or intellectual rate of growth than men.
Ranjana Kumari who is Director of the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research and Chairwoman of Women Power Contact and whom we keep listening time and again in various news channels for her forthright views in her enlightening editorial in The Times of India dated December 24, 2021 sagaciously points out that, “What are the advantages of advancing the age of marriage? There is a growing consensus that advancing marriage age will positively impact the health of women and kids, their educational level and provide them with the opportunity to be economically self-reliant. Scientifically, the frontal lobe region in the brain that is responsible for decision-making develops in the years between 18 and 20. When the frontal lobe is fully developed, one is bound to make sounder decisions. It is not just about decision making, one also has better emotional regulation and maturity. Fixing the legal age of marriage at 21 will not just empower them but will also have a ripple effect on society. When you empower women, you empower an entire family – especially children, who are the future of the nation.”
Needless to say, this alone explains that why it is so famously said that, “When you educate a men you educate an individual but when you educate a women you educate the entire family.” How can that be possible? The answer is quite palpable: Treat women in the same manner as men are treated. This alone explains why the age of men and women must be fixed uniformly at 21.
While reiterating the government’s commitment to a “zero tolerance policy” with regards to crime against women and asserting that the participation of women in the growth cycle of “new India” is increasing relentlessly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi cited the government’s move to seek an amendment to the law to cross the ages of marriage for women from 18 to 21 as a step aimed at empowering girls to complete their education and build a career. PM Modi said in his address via video conferencing on the occasion of the 30th Foundation Day of the National Commission for Women: “To ensure that marriage at an early age does not hinder the education and career of daughters, an effort is being made to raise the age of marriage for women to 21 years.” Modi also explicitly said that, “We have seen those governments that did not prioritise women safety, women have ensured their departure from power.”
In a nutshell, we really need to come out of our ancient patriarchal mindset. Now how can this be possible? It can be possible only and only by extending our unstinted support and cooperation to all such moves by Centre and PM Narendra Modi which directly benefits women and brings them on parity with men as we see here where there is an extremely commendable attempt to bring both men and women on the same footing as is the crying need of the hour also to ensure that women are also emancipated in exactly the same manner as men!
By Sanjeev Sirohi