Why raising marriage age of women won’t achieve its stated goal

News: The move by Union Cabinet to raise the legal minimum age at marriage for women to 21, and introduction of an amendment to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, comes as a blow to women’s rights.

The move is neither feasible, nor grounded in evidence, nor respectful of women’s rights.

Why the move is not feasible or justified?

A lax record in enforcing earlier laws: The law prohibiting marriage below the age of 18 has been in effect in some form since the 1900s, yet child marriage persists. Moreover, even though more than one in five marriages took place below age 18, hardly any violations of the Act appear in our criminal records.

So when we have failed to even enforce a law against marriage before age 18, it is hardly feasible that we can succeed in enforcing a law that expands the age range

Not based on evidence: It is seen that those women who marry at the age of 21 and later are healthier, better nourished, better educated, and have better career opportunities than those experiencing child marriage. But the reason behind this is not their delayed marriages.

It is because they come from better-off households, don’t have to discontinue their education prematurely, have at least one better-educated parent, and do not come from socially excluded castes and tribes. Hence, raising of marriageable age is not justified by evidence too.

Denial of rights: Romantic relations are increasingly taking place in adolescence in India (as in the world over) and some young women will certainly make an informed decision to marry before they are 21. Thus, the present move denies women the right to make informed marriage decisions and their reproductive rights.

What is the way forward?

Enforce the existing law better: Growing evidence shows that the number of child marriages (under 18) may have increased in many states during the pandemic and lockdown periods. Hence, government should make efforts to ensure adherence to the present law, rather than raising the marriage age.

To empower disadvantaged women, and to ensure that delay in the timing of marriage happen on its own, without the need for legislation, the following steps can be taken:

Investments in reversing the fundamental structural disadvantages that women who marry early face

Addressing issues of equity – a) measures that will enable the disadvantaged women to complete their education, b) address safety issues of women in public places including public transportation, and d) change the perceptions of parents as they are the ultimate decision-makers on marriage related decisions for a majority of women.

Source: This post is based on the article “Why raising marriage age of women won’t achieve its stated goal” published in
The Indian Express on 22nd Dec 2021 and “Raising marriage age won’t lead to women’s empowerment” published in The Indian Express on 21st Dec 2021.

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