Ever since prime minister Narendra Modi declared on the last Independence Day that the legal age of marriage for women in the country is being revisited and that it will be decided to raise it to 21, debate and speculations about it have been rife. Through the amendment introduced in 1978 in the Child Marriage Restraint Act, the legal age of marriage had been raised from 15 to 18 for women and 18 to 21 for men. Although that is the legal stipulation, it is an open secret that across communities of all religions and castes, marriage of women below the minimum age has been rampant. Statistics say that this is a major cause of not only premature discontinuation of education of those getting married at an early age, but also of increased rate of post-partum deaths and infant mortality. It has also been observed that since the raising of girls' marriage age to 18, the entry of girls into higher secondary and degree level education have seen an uptick.
As per education statistics of 2014, during 2013-14 students at the secondary and higher secondary level showed a ratio of 90 and 89 per 100 boys respectively. This is a creditable achievement compared to that of previous years. Latest data give a still brighter picture that the boys:girls ratio at the degree level is almost getting even. Certainly the rate of maternal death and infant mortality is to a great extent addressed through better level of education. In order for young women to have ample awareness about marriage, maternity and child breeding, and to get engaged in meaningful employment, they need to have a minimum education of higher secondary or even higher. But, the crux of the debate is whether it is imperative to raise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 to achieve that goal. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had indicated during her last budget speech that a decision on this will be taken according to the report of the task force appointed by central Ministry for Women and Child Development in June 2020 which is now endorsed by the prime minister as well. This is indication enough that the legal age of marriage for women will be fixed at 21 equal to men. Whether this will be introduced in parliament as a bill and passed after due debate, or hurried through in the form of an ordinance remains to be seen, the latter being more probable, going by recent trends. For, given the guarantee of Modi government's majority in parliament for passing any bill, and an ordinance can stay valid for six months before enactment in parliament, the Modi government's standard practice has been to adopt this.
If it comes to that, the question begging answer is what the big hurry for such a legislation is. The only explanation proffered by the government circles is a generic statement that it is necessary for women's health. In 143 countries including the US, Germany, France, Italy, Canad, Australia, Norway, Sweden, Netherlands, Brazil and Russia, which are far ahead of India in women's education, the minimum age for marriage is 18. It is only in about 20 developing countries like India, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria and the Philippines that the minimum age of marriage is fixed at 21. If a lower age of marriage is an impediment for education and employment and standard of living, the question arises why those advanced countries mentioned here chose to maintain it at 18. Recent experience also is that in proportion to women's enlightenment, young women are able to continue education and get employed regardless of their getting married. Plus, a good percentage of female students in professional colleges in Kerala and universities in Delhi and Hyderabad are married. But taking none of these facts within the scope of analysis, and proceeding with a single - probably hidden agenda - of raising marriage age in a hurry, is baffling and suspicious.
It is the same parents who aspire for their children, both male and female - to get higher education and employment that also wish them to get married at the ripe age and lead responsible family lives. The move to thwart this purely natural and human intention through legislation, would not be justified in the name of progress. In addition, who can lose sight of the bare truth that in India a large section of parents without the financial wherewithal to bear the cost of their children's higher education, wish to let their daughters get married at least at the age of 18 and thus get out of the burden of livelihood? Especially in the light of an upsurge of female trafficking and human smuggling, this fact brooks no glossing over.