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WAS THE DECISION TO INCREASE LEGAL AGE OF MARRIAGE FOR GIRLS IS RIGHT?

Author: Saima Hasan, I year of B.B.A.,LL.B. from North Cap University


Recently, the Cabinet has passed a proposal to increase the minimum age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years old, claiming that it would empower women and will help to eradicate child marriage.


In June 2020, Ministry of Women and Child Development setup a task force which was headed by Jaya Jaitly, talking to TOI she said the reason to increase women age of marriage is not to control population because it is already controlled. According to latest data mortality rate of India is 2.0 which perfectly under control, the real agenda behind is to improve women reproductive health after marriage,motherhood related problem like maternal mortality rate and death of mother after childbirth. To reduce age for marriage this task force took feedback from 16 universities and various other NGO`s. But here the real issue is to control child marriage which in turn increases the rate of motherhood problems.


WHAT IS CHILD MARRIAGE PROBLEM?

According to 2019 estimates, more than 1.5 million girls in Indian weren`t 18 years old at the time of their marriage. If we look global number of child brides, one-third are from India, but the most shocking fact is that, according to NFHS 2019-20201 data 23% marriages are child marriages. Does that mean one-fifth of the people are violating the law? To understand we need to understand history of child marriages.


About 100 years ago, in 1917 some women came together to establish the Women`s Indian Association. An association to raise the issue related to women, in front of then British Empire. But unfortunately , theBritishers were not interested in bringing these social reforms , so they approached India Freedom Fighters like Motilal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi requesting them to raise these issues infront of British empire. In 1929 on Gandhi Ji advice Harbilas Sharda introduced a Bill, to restrain child marriages. Under this pressure British India Parliament passed Child Marriage Restraint Act,1929. According to this act, minimum marriage age for girls was fixed at 14 years and for boys it was fixed at 18 years. But actually implementing this law did not bring any benefits to the British, so they didn`t really try to popularize this act and implementing at ground level that is why there is not much change. The next major step was taken after the Independence, in 1949 when the minimum marriage age for girls was raised from 14 to 15 years. And then in 1978, it was raised even further from 15 to 18 years old and in the same year, this age was raised for men from 18 to 21 years old. Under this act, the offences were no cognizable, before this, if you complained about a child marriage taking place then action could be taken based on your complaint, but now, he authorities could take action on their own even if no one complained about it.


But even after this, authorities were hardly concerned and the ground reality didn`t change much. The most important change took place in the year 2006, The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 this was the first time that child brides were given the option to have their marriage declared void. Before this, they had to go through divorce once the child marriage had taken place. But now, if someone is victim of child marriage they could go and complain and their marriage would be cancelled. Section 3 of this act say that every child marriage is voidable, but,there was a time limit for this rule, the marriage can be declared void only till 2 years after attaining the marriage age. Once the age limit is crossed the child marriage couldn`t be cancelled after that, and this was a big loophole in the law. The things were so weird, that till 2017 the age of consent for physical relations was 18 years, but for a child bride, the same age was 15 years only. So we can say that, in a child marriage, marital rape was legal. Independent Thought, and NGO had filed a petition in the regarding this, thankfully our Supreme Court took an action regarding it and criminalized marital rape for girls below the age of 18. Theoretically, in Sections 9,10 and 11 of the 2006 Act, has the provisions of levying punishments, imprisonment for up to 2 years and fine up to rupees one lakh. But when the Act also contains that child marriage are voidable but cannot be automatically void then how would this law work. That`s why even today we can see, that 23% of all marriages are child marriages.


Hundreds of thousand of girls are married off at such a young age, but the cases registered regarding it is only a handful. Between 2014-2016, a mere 1785 cases were registered only and conviction was done only in 274 cases. This problem is not only found in India, many countries around the world have same problem. According to a 2010 UNFPA report, in 158 countries the legal age for marriage has been set at 18 years, but in 146 of these 158 countries the law allows the child marriage of girls with the consent of parents. Some countries have also taken positive action like Tanzania in Africa declared all marriages of children below the the age of 18 illegal.


WHAT ARE THE OBJECTIONS RAISED AFTER PROPOSAL IS PASSED?

The main objection was raised by Rajya Sabha MP Priyanka Chaturvedi, by sharing newspaper clip on Twitter showing the names daughters are given in some part of India like Dhapu( Feed Up), Ramghani( O`Ram it`s enough ), and increasing there age for marriage will have more impact then child marriage. The main objection is that it is violating freedom of choice, because this act is restraining a 18 year old woman to choose when to marry and the same time she has a right to choose her MP,MLA. This act is also authoritative as it acting as guardian for the girl child restraining her freedom and treating her as property. This act also violates Article 14 which gives freedom to choose and Article 21 which gives right to personal liberty of the constitution.


ARGUMENTS IN FAVOUR

The decision by the central government because it is fundamentally against child marriages when the age limit is raised to 21 years, hopefully it will motivate people to have marriages at that age limit but at the same it should not be empty promise and with this child marriages should be declared illegal. The second argument is that this act will give time for girl child to be mentally and physically ready to marry. This act will also reduce motherhood problems and will also decrease malnutrition in children. The third argument was that this act will provide girl child to compete with male in education and carrier.


CONCLUSION

The increase in legal age for marriage is somewhat correct but only increasing the age will not do much. Infact, the task force on whose recommendation this Bill has been introduced has put forward more recommendations for bringing about societal change like increasing the accessibility for women in schools and colleges, easing transportation for women to schools and colleges and also focus on skill development and business training if these are also not implemented then this law will not be very effective. Government should also consider to completely ban child marriages. Central government “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” should not waste money just on advertisement but effectively implement it on ground level.