Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his Independence Day speech this year, announced that the government was considering revising the legal age of marriage for women and that a task force has been formed for the same. The decision will be based on reports from a high-level committee looking into the average age of mothers, efforts to reduce maternal mortality, and the health and nutritional status of young women.
Since men can only legally marry at 21, increasing the age of marriage for women is expected to eliminate gender discrimination, allowing girls to continue studying and enhancing their participation in the workforce, all being the reasons for the revision of the legal age of women to marry.
This has generated vast public views, individuals/ organisations coming with diverse opinions and concerns regarding the same. On the other hand, the Christian, Hindu, and Parsi marriage laws are against this, so are the Special Marriage Act and Child Marriage Prohibition Act.
Advocate Noorbeena Rasheed, leader of IUML's Vanitha League, told the Madhyamam, "The Government bodies give social and legal backing to the live-in relationship. If they are so progressive, what is the relevance in raising the age of marriage for women if a living relationship is valid even without a marriage irrespective of age? If they are actually concerned about women, the government should focus on the education, health, and social security of women rather than raising the marriage age. Awareness among women, a conducive atmosphere for education and safety of women, is the need of the hour to eradicate child marriage."
She also highlighted that the reason for raising the age of marriage is that 30 per cent of girls in India get married before the age of 18.
"The Child Marriage Prohibition Act of 2006 itself contains provisions to prevent marriages before the age of 18 and to ensure severe punishment for violators. Re-enacting legislation without properly utilizing the existing law will not benefit the country," she further added.
In a conversation to The Hindu on 'Should the age of marriage for women be raised to 21' moderated by Jagriti Chandra, Madhu Mehra, Executive Director of Partners for Law in Development India, and co-founder of the National Coalition for Advocating for Adolescent Concerns, says "An increase in age to 21 years would mean further persecution of girls right up till 21 years. We've seen this in the Supreme Court and the Kerala High Court in the Hadiya case, where an adult woman's decision to marry was challenged by her parents. This is how it plays out in the Indian context."
"The new proposal is that marriages before the legal age will now be considered as 'void'. Thus, women and girls will be exposed to sex within a marriage, which is socially acceptable but legally void, and will have no rights to reparation, social protection, or any other benefit because the marriage is considered to not have taken place.In a country where women's sexuality is closely guarded as a matter of family and community honour, this is a perilous proposition for women," says Abhijit Das, an associate professor from the Department of Global Health in the University of Washington, Seattle, in an article written in The Wire.
The revision of age would curb the rights of women in deciding what they want for themselves. As Flavia Agnes, Indian women's right lawyer in an article for Kafila once said, "For the family and state authorities, lack of age becomes synonymous with lack of agency to express sexual desire and bodily pleasure. The only way they could do so was by upholding the validity of these marriages by bestowing on the minor girls an agency (by invoking the premise of 'age of discretion') and by distancing the notion of "age" from "consent" or "agency"."
However, a report by SBI Ecowrap says the decision will have enormous social and economic benefits leading to a more equal society and will provide opportunities for women to pursue higher education, jobs, and financial empowerment.