Legal Age Of Women For Marriage

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The Union Cabinet once again has landed itself in boiling water after it decided to raise the minimum legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21. The Union Cabinet also introduced a bill of amendment to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 in the Indian parliament on December 16. Now, the bill aims to provide a uniform age of marriage across religions, irrespective of any law, custom, or practice. According to the proposal, this will lead to the empowerment of women. It has been introduced as a move to aid “women progress on all fronts including their physical, mental and reproductive health”. However, the bill has been referred to a Parliamentary Standing Committee after resistance from various sections of the society as well as the opposition parties. It is noteworthy that in June 2020, the Union ministry of Women and Child Development had formed a task force led by politician and activist Jaya Jaitly. According to Jaitly, the agenda of this task force was not population control because data from the fifth National Family Health Survey (NFHS) indicates that the country’s total fertility rate has been below 2.0 and India’s population has already been controlled. The main aim behind this move, therefore, was to tackle matters about the age of motherhood such as reducing the maternal mortality rate.

One of the primary objections to the bill relates to the freedom of choice. Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary and former Rajya Sabha member Sitaram Yechury has said that a woman at the age of 18 is legally an adult. According to him, for marriage, treating her as a juvenile is self-contradictory and the proposal violates an adult’s right to make personal choices of her partner. The All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen party chief and Lok Sabha member Asaduddin Owaisi had a similar take on the issue. In the opinion of people who have such objections to the proposal, the legal age of marriage for both men and women should be 18 years.

According to a 2010 United Nations (UN) Population Fund report, 18 years was the minimum legal age of marriage without parental consent in 158 countries. Till 2017, the age of consent for physical relations for a girl was 18 years, but the same was 15 years for a child bride. This, therefore, raised the issue of marital rape in child marriages. It was then that a Supreme Court bench consisting of Justices Madan Lokur and Deepak Gupta criminalised marital rape for girls under the age of 18 years in a landmark judgment. As per the UN Children’s Fund, more than 1.5 million girls under the age of 18 get married in India. At a global level, one-third of the total is from India. According to 2019-21 NFHS data, 23 percent of marriages in India are child marriages. This is a blatant abrogation of the law in place right now. The decision of the government in India to raise the minimum age of marriage for women to 21 years could be seen as a progressive step to tackle this issue. However, unless this decision is accompanied by the illegalisation of child marriages, it will not be successful in bringing any significant reduction in child marriages.

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