SHOULD INDIA REVISE THE AGE OF MARRIAGE?
Last month on the Independence Day of India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the ramparts of the Red Fort announced that one of the priorities of his government in this year is to rise the legal age of marriage of girls from 18 years to 21 years. The age of marriage has been a matter of debate for very long. One of the earliest cases on the matter of the legal age of marriage for women dates back to 1884¹. Since then it has been discussed what is the correct age for women to get married. From the address of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it is quite evident that the government is considering that the legal marriageable age for girls may be raised. Currently, the legal age of marriage for women is 18 years and for men, it is 21 years of age. But this question of whether India should revise the age of marriage or not is not as simple as it looks. It involves multiple issues and concerns and a discussion is going on across the length and breadth of India to speculate what might happen if the marriageable age for girls is revised.
An important aspect that should be taken into account is that no one is currently demanding to rise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 years to 21 years. Many critics say that the government is mistaken because it believes that if the marriageable age of girls has increased then the health and nutritional standards of mothers will also increase and enhanced nutritional standards of mothers would result in the enhanced nutritional standards of infants. But the critics say that the sole reason for poor nutritional standards of mothers is not the marriageable age of women but the increasing poverty. Critics say that population explosion and poverty are major factors that contribute to the poor health of mothers. Social experts say that people give birth to infants without making sure that they have enough resources or not to fulfil the aspirations of their children and this result in malnutrition among children.
Another very important question that the government should think upon is that if they are planning to increase the age of marriage for women then what about the age of consent. Age of consent is defined as the age at which one is considered to be legally competent to consent for indulging in sexual activity. Minors don’t understand the consequences of their actions that is why there are laws which forbid sexual activity with children or sexual activity among children. If the Indian Penal Code of 1860 is looked into, then it will be found that the age of consent was only for girls and it was 10 years. Then it was increased to 12 years, then to 14 years, then to 16 years and finally, in 2013 the age of consent for girls was increased to 18 years
So now the question arises that if the marriageable age for girls is increased to 21 years and the age of consent is not increased then what will happen to the girls in between the age group of 18 to 21 years. Another aspect is that if the age of consent is also increased to 21 years then there will be more number of rapists in our country because then any kind of sexual activity with girls below the age of 21 will be considered as rape.
There is also another concern that is raised by the critics and experts of sociology that right now the existing legal age of marriage for women is 18 but still if a girl who is below 18 years of age gets married then that marriage is voidable but not void. There is a minor difference between voidable and void. Let’s say a girl is below the age of 18 and she is forcibly married to a boy of above the age of 21. This marriage is still legal and it will be annulled only if the girl files a petition in the court and only after that court will declare this marriage as invalid. So if the legal age of marriage for women is increased then these types of marriages that can be annulled by the court but are not because the girls don’t file a petition will increase in India.
Another very important issue regarding the age of consent and the age of marriage is the problem of marital rapes. There was section 375 of Indian Penal Code which said that if a girl in the age group of 15 to 18 marries a boy and if the boy consumes this marriage which means that if the boy sexually interacts with his wife then this will not be considered as rape. So basically marital rapes was not a concept in India until and unless the apex institution of India that is the Supreme Court of India came into the picture in 2017. The Supreme Court of India said in the year of 2017 that if a husband has sexual intercourse with his wife who is below the age of 18, even this comes under rape. So this shows that the age of consent is very important as far as security and empowerment of women are concerned.
Activists and experts say that if the marriageable age for girls is increased to 21 years then the number of cases of elopement in India will increase. Let’s say if there is a boy below the age of 21 and there is a girl below the age of 21, they fall in love and they elope. If the father of the girl files a complaint with the police then the boy will be booked under the charges of kidnapping and statutory rape and the girl might come under the influence of her father and say that the boy kidnapped her and she never gave her consent.
So some many concerns and questions still have to be taken into consideration. Many aspects get affected by the change in the legal age of marriage for women and it will severely impact the conditions of women in our country. It has been objected by the critics that if this policy of increasing the legal age of marriage for women is implemented without taking the above questions into the picture it will have serious repercussions on the situation of women.
Many critics also say that this policy will open Pandora's box² and a new set of complications will be introduced in society. They say that it is not the best option to promote gender equality, the safety of the health of women and women empowerment. Furthermore, it has been suggested by several experts that a more innovative and incentivizing approach is required to solve the issue related to the safety and security of women. So we should look forward to what will happen to this policy and what will be the detailed provisions of it and whether the government will incorporate the above-mentioned issues in the policy or not. But one thing is for sure that even if the current and existing policies are implemented effectively then also it will do wonders in the area of women empowerment.
¹Rukhmabai case in Mumbai in 1884.
²A process once begun generates complications