he Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which seeks to raise the age of legal marriage for women from 18 to 21, introduced in the Lok Sabha during the winter session, appears to be yet another exercise of the BJP government in tinkering with laws to whip up controversies for political gain rather than seriously tackling problems on hand. For, the legislative initiative looks like an oversimplification of the problem. The stated objectives, as explained by the government, are not population control, but empowerment of women and giving them more access to education and jobs. If that is so, the aims could be achieved without raising women’s marriageable age or blaming the existing law for the plight of women in India. The solution is likely to create more problems than solve the existing problems.
The existing law, instead of being vigorously implemented, is wantonly violated. As such, the move to raise the marriage age for women could end up being counter-productive by criminalising a large number of women who marry early out of choice. At the same time, no sincere efforts have been made to address the underlying factors that are responsible for the phenomenon of child marriage. According to available data, what is required far more than raising the marriageable age for women is more investments in education and creation of jobs for women, especially, those belonging to economically weaker families.
Noteworthy is that the Odisha State Commission for Protection of Child Rights has recommended not only continuing 18 years as the legal marriageable age for girls, it has also suggested that the legal marriageable age for boys be lowered to 18 years from the present 21 years.
Interestingly, early marriage of women below 18 years has steadily kept falling in India from 47 per cent of women in 2005-06 to 23 per cent in 2019-20. This shows that increase in awareness of social requirements has, by itself, helped in decreasing the evil of child marriage. The reason for underage brides is not because of the current legal marriageable age being 18 years, but because of lack of adherence to the existing law. It is unfortunate that in 2018, only 501 cases were booked under the Prevention of Child Marriage Act (PCMA) throughout the country. Sociologists point out and experience shows when girls study and earn money, they and many a times their families undergo a change in attitude and the girls invest their time in the pursuit of studies and career. This automatically delays their marriage. In some instances, parents also, in a very sly manner, obstruct the earning daughter’s marriage at a young age. Because of India’s social mores, once the daughter becomes older, she moves out of the marriage bracket. This compels the daughter to continue living with the parents who then benefit from her income for the rest of their lives. This kind of a family situation proves that though technically the daughter has been educated and has become economically independent, she is not necessarily empowered to take her own life decisions.
Another aspect that is being glossed over by the government while batting for increase in the age of marriage for women is that such a move will in all likelihood diminish further adult women’s right to decide their own lives and choice of life partners. At the grassroots, it is found that the PCMA is used by parents of girls as a coercive tool to prevent them from choosing their own life partners. The country has seen umpteenth cases when young people, who decided to marry a partner of their own choice, found their parents or relatives register cases under the PCMA if they are lucky. If unlucky and part of a family believes in honour killing, they can have their heads chopped off. It is a sad commentary on the government and law enforcement agencies that they, more often than not, fail to prevent parents from stopping their adult daughters from marrying men of their choice. On the other hand, the existing law prohibiting child marriage is merrily violated in cases where parents take the initiative to get their underage daughters married off knowingly.
The Bill, which has been sent to the Parliamentary Standing Committee following vociferous demands made by the Opposition parties, overrides six existing personal laws including those of Hindoos, Moslems, Christians and Parsis. The protests by the Opposition and the charge that the government is showing undue haste in passing the legislation seem to be well founded. What strengthens the suspicion is the fact that only one woman MP has been included in the 31-member Parliamentary Panel assigned to examine the Bill.
Questions can be posed on the true intentions of the government in pushing this Bill. Is it for controlling the growth of population? Is it for posturing by the government on being progressive and pro-women? Or is it, like Demonetisation, for proving that this government is capable of taking bold steps that touches every individual? Only time can tell.