It was during a random conversation I had with my friend that I came across this recent proposal by the Union Ministry for Women and Child Development under the BJP Government to increase the minimum age of marriage for women from 18 to 21. The conversation was picked up later on when our Prime Minister, Narendra Modi made the same announcement on Independence day.
As the proposal to raise the legal age for marriage to 21 was made, it marked the time to start yet another conversation. A positive sign, finally men and women have the same legal age for marriage. The response to this, however, took different forms. The majority were glad at this proposal, some people found loopholes in this and the rest of the privileged beings kept hush.
Is raising the legal age of marriage to 21 for women progressive?
Let’s jot down what is running in the back of our minds and try to understand the consequence of this solid amendment.
From the Indian Penal Code of 1860 that penalized any sexual intercourse with a girl of 10 years of age or below to the Sarda Act of 1978 that denotes 18 and 21 as the legal age for marriage for women and men respectively, we’ve come a long way. But, have we?
In 1978, when the age to get married was raised from 14 and 16 to 18 and 21, for women and men respectively, it was done to control the population of the country. The logic? The later people got married, the lesser the chances of reproduction, hence, lesser population.
But, the understanding of legal and consensual marriageable age has changed over the course of the years. The decision to increase the legal age of marriage for girls in India would mean a lesser burden of marital responsibility before the age of 21. And, therefore, the increased likelihood of accessing education. But, here’s the issue.
In a patriarchal country like India, getting a proper education is still a task for a girl child. The good news is that the drop out rates have decreased immensely in the past few decades, thanks to the Sarda Act. This, in turn, is a good example of how the legal age of marriage is linked to access to education and opportunity for a woman. While men are conditioned to be the breadwinners of the family, they are urged to work and hence, have access to education. In some parts of India, educating a girl child is still considered a luxury. Once married, only a few make it to college. Even in our own state with its high literacy rate, education sometimes is only an added benefit in the marriage market. Implementing this proposal of increasing age would mean that women have extended opportunities, they have access to college education, at least for some people. But without extending the age of education under the Right to Education Act (2009) to 21, this proposal wouldn’t work.
While this a basic thought we all had at one point, there are some loopholes as expressed by many officials and acquaintances of mine.
The legal age of marriage in some cases is used as a tool for emotional blackmail and parental control by some households as parents can use the law to punish elopement right up to 21 years. The age of consent in India is 18. If a consented intercourse leads to an accidental pregnancy, now it would be a criminal act for those individuals to get married if they haven’t turned 21. We aren’t informed of the existing laws.
Some opinionate that this would have an incremental effect on female foeticide as now they would have to invest in a girl child for 21 years, thereby, increasing their burden. In addition to that, this proposal does not look into the root cause of child marriage which is still rampant in many parts of India. In many parts of the country, when a girl child is born, the end goal is marriage. The mentality of educating a girl child is still not ingrained in many households. Some girls are not even sent to schools, instead, made to do child labour and cannot seek better employment opportunities as they grow up to be adults.
This proposal remains blind to the realities that exist in our country that brings into light the loopholes that will come into play if the marriageable age of women is increased from 18 to 21 years.
Like my readers, I am also left with questions. Can a simple amendment change these hegemonic practices that disrupt equality? Will this be implemented well or is it just another gimmick for the next election? Will this uplift the condition of women in India? Change is inevitable, but why does marriage always have to be the initiation of change for women?
While some questions can’t be answered because of the privilege some of us hold, a privilege that makes us unable to truly understand the life that we haven’t lived; the others are left unanswered due to its instability and ambiguousness. I wish more people would come and take part in this discourse so that we could collectively elucidate the points ( The comment section is waiting for your opinion). In this surge of information available to us, it’s important to step back a bit, introspect and identify your stance before accepting anybody’s opinion as yours.
To get married or not to get married, it’s a personal choice. I wish shortly we would stop considering marriage as the ‘only’ milestone in an individual’s life. We deserve to know our rights and take part in decision making!