Mamta, a young woman from Ajmer, explained how the laws don’t take into account ground realities and this one may do more harm than good.

A woman's silhouette against the sunset. She is sitting cross legged Image for representation
news Policy Tuesday, August 25, 2020 - 18:31

“Back in the village, decisions are taken based on the girl’s body language and how [old] she looks. It doesn’t depend on her actual age,” begins Mamta Jangid, a young woman from Ajmer. “There is a major difference in the laws and the situation in the village. It is tough for us to remain at home till we are 18 only. Early marriage happens because there aren’t opportunities, access or awareness about getting us educated, not the other way round,” she adds.

Mamta was one of the 2,000 young persons from 15 states based on discussions and surveys with whom the Young Voices report was put together by 54 civil society organisations. This report was submitted to a Task Force formed to examine the correlation between age of marriage and motherhood with key health, medical, wellbeing and nutritional status as well as higher education of girls and young women. Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his Independence Day speech that the government was mulling raising women’s age of marriage from 18 to 21 – something which has drawn concerns from many social workers, researchers and civil society organisations.

Present at a virtual press conference on the issue on Monday, Mamta added, “You can have a minimum age for marriage, which is 18. After that, we should be able to decide. When we can vote and drive at 18, why can’t we decide to marry?”

Others present at the online event included activists and researchers, who also pointed out that by raising the age of marriage to 21, the government will end up taking away young women’s agency.

The government’s premise for the proposed change is that it will give women “increased access to economic independence, greater freedom of marital choices, and, given the positive correlation between educational qualification and lower fertility rates, more reproductive freedom.” However, Mamta, and another young woman, Priyanka Murmu, pointed out that poverty has a more direct impact on these things than child marriage.

“If a woman is sitting at home till 21, she becomes an eyesore. The family has to bear taunts from the society, especially because she is not studying or working. That way, there is already a law to prevent child marriage but it happens anyway. Why will families wait till 21 then?” Mamta asks. On the other hand, if the government spreads sensitivity and awareness among the village elders about giving equal opportunity to girls, and creates those avenues, such as accessible schools, employment opportunities nearby, then the possibility of early marriage also becomes unlikely, she added.

“I don’t think child marriage will stop even if they raise the age to 21,” agreed Priyanka, who is a class 12 student from Jharkhand and a respondent to the Young Voices report. “If they focus on the other issues that lead to child marriage, it will automatically stop.”

‘Poverty drives child/early marriage’

Madhu Mehra, a founding member and director of Partners for Law in Development (PLD), a women’s rights legal resource group, pointed out that on the contrary, raising the age of marriage to 21 will only make women vulnerable to parental control till the age of 21. “Underage marriage is a poverty phenomenon. Our study into child marriage cases has shown that a majority of the cases that go to court are ones where teenage girls have married by choice or eloped because they know they will not have the choice when they turn 18, or to gain state protection by marriage. The parents then take these cases to court and the child marriage law is used to undermine the agency of these young girls.”

The other panelists explained how poverty drives child marriage or early marriage. For one, child marriages enjoy a social sanction. “The people who are supposed to stop these marriages, like panchayat leaders, actually participate in them. The local officials also don’t do what they are supposed to because it is accepted as a practice,” Priyanka pointed out.

Further, the preference for male children and girls being seen as a burden also means that the family wants to remove the economic responsibility of her as soon as they can. As the girl gets older, the dowry – though an illegal practice but still demanded and accepted in India – that the family has to pay also increases. Poverty and patriarchy also mean that the family will either not have the money to pay for a girl’s education, or will not prefer to have her educated. As a result, marriage is seen as the next logical step for her.

“The problem is that raising the age of women’s marriage to 21 is being offered as a one-shot solution to the injustices of patriarchy – as though, if the minimum age is raised to 21, it will address girls’ education, maternal mortality, infant mortality and so on. This is what we are countering. Later marriage does have benefits for these factors, but the child marriage law in its present form and increasing the age of women’s marriage to 21 will end up penalising those who are already on the margins,” argued Enakshi Ganguly, activist and co-founder of HAQ, Centre for Child Rights.  

This is not to say that delaying marriage for women does not have benefits. However, Mary E John, Senior Fellow at Centre for Women’s Development Studies added that she had discovered in her research that the impact of a higher age of marriage on better opportunities for women is superficial and weakly linked. “Objectively, if she has appropriate antenatal care and is healthy, there are enough biological indicators to say that a woman can have a healthy child and motherhood at 18 also. However, unless the school in her neighbourhood also allows her to study higher secondary, unless her poverty is alleviated, unless she is provided with economic opportunities she can access, as well as nutrition and healthcare, nothing will change between 18 and 21 either.”

Kavita Ratna, of the Young Voices National Working Group, who was part of the group discussions and surveys done for the Young Voices report said that if issues of education, sexuality education, gender equity and gender-based violence are addressed, “they say they will marry when they want to marry and if they want to marry. There wouldn’t be a need to raise the age at all. Just because 18 is the minimum age now doesn’t mean they have to marry at 18. They just want the choice to be left to them,” she said.

Through the Young Voices report, it also came to light that young persons want safe spaces to interact with people of other genders. “They say if they could meet and interact safely, then they would not have to marry early or elope. However, marriage becomes associated with safety and as a ticket out. That is also what spurs early marriages,” Kavita had told TNM.

“We don’t need knee jerk actions. What we need is to see to it that girls are actually empowered. And this law will not do that,” Enakshi said. 

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