The Prime Minister’s announcement to raise the legal marriageable age limit for girls from 18 to 21 years has been hailed by advocates as a historic move.
Proponents argue that the future law would address serious concerns like population control, early pregnancy and motherhood, maternal mortality, lack of opportunities for higher education, careers and gender injustice.
Equally strong views of disagreement are being articulated by scholars, NGOs, activists and opinion-makers, the author included. The opponents hold the view that the proposed law is not likely to succeed in changing the socio-cultural realities at the ground level and the gender barriers against women in achieving its intended goals.
The structural inequalities and prejudices of the society that are the root causes of the problem cannot be adequately addressed only through legal interventions.
As per the Unicef, at least 1.5 million girls under the age of 18 are married each year — making India home to the largest number of child brides. The ongoing Covid-19 crisis will further increase the number of child marriages in the country.
As seen in the aftermath of Ebola in affected countries, child marriage rates increased drastically, for reasons of deteriorating economic opportunities and future uncertainties. The sudden and prolonged March lockdown has hit hard a very large section of our country’s population; leading to economic deprivation.
As a result, poor parents, out of work due to Covid, are marrying off minor daughters to reduce financial burden. The closure of schools has further aggravated the problem.
Tragically, the poor parents see this as an opportunity to get their minor daughters married at a lower cost on ceremonies and dowry. Overall, the current unfortunate situation will further undermine the strategies and efforts of the past years to combat child marriages in India.
Families coming from lower socioeconomic strata, particularly in rural areas, are thus being compelled to marry their offspring early. Raising the legal age of marriage is not going to make any favourable impact on this section of the society.
Thus the proposed law is not a panacea for gender injustice. Though well-intentioned, it will not easily translate into desired outcomes. The law will not effectively target the underlying causes that lead to child marriages, overpopulation, malnutrition and maternal mortality.
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights and the Young Lives in 2018 noted that the high prevalence of child marriages in India is mainly due to poverty and lack of education. In addition to this, it is equally necessary to address cultural and sociological reasons behind the phenomenon.
The multiple factors that are responsible for child marriages, despite a law prohibiting it, include caste, class, custom, coercion, economy, education and poverty. The most significant factor is gender inequality and the low value associated with girls and women in India.
The discrimination against girls starts from the womb and continues to reflect in their access to food, education, employment and other resources.
The cultural and patriarchal values ingrained in our society view them as a social and economic burden on the family. Child marriage is also a part of this systematic unfairness.
In rural communities, structural inequalities and patriarchy are perpetrated in the guise of custom. Societal pressure forces families into marrying daughters early to prevent them from becoming sexually active before marriage.
The low priority assigned to providing resources for a girl’s education contributes to their further marginalisation. The families that want to educate their daughters are unable to do so, due to inadequacy of resources and, in many cases, lack of neighbourhood schools.
Instead of raising the legal marriageable age, girls need to be provided with equal opportunities to continue their education. Though the Right to Education Act assures education until the age of 14 years, an incremental move would be to ensure quality education till the age of 18, access to higher education, job opportunities and training. Education provides a stepping stone for girls to move out of inter-generational poverty.
This approach will make girls economically independent and strengthen their agency to make informed decisions regarding their career, reproductive health, life, and whether to marry or not.
The existing laws have not so far succeeded in curbing the problem of child marriage. Even though the minimum age of marriage is 18 years, in rural and backward areas, minor girls as young as 12 or 13 get married. The proposal will only lead to a change in the law, but will not change the societal realities.
Effectively addressing it requires enormous effort and resources. The state and society together have to challenge gender stereotypes and socio-cultural barriers to women’s empowerment. They may act through well-planned interventions and awareness drives with parents and communities.
The focus of government policies and advocacy should be on enhancing capabilities, skills, education, and employability of the girls and women.
Additionally, advocating and promoting the sexual and reproductive health for girls and women would be an ideal approach to address their overall well-being and achieve desired population control.
This will enable them to make informed decisions on contraceptive services, abortion, and family planning. The social empowerment of women is needed foremost to progress towards gender equality and their emancipation.
Our society needs to deconstruct existing prejudices and treat women as autonomous individuals, equal at the household and community levels. The focus needs to be oriented towards their empowerment by providing them with education, vocations, and equal opportunities.
This approach will help better address the problems related to early marriages, a skewed sex ratio, maternal mortality and population.
The writer is an alumnus of the MSc social policy studies programme at the London School of Economics and the sociology masters programme from Delhi School of Economics. She is currently working with Women Power Connect.