Debate About Legal Age of Marriage of Women in India

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Debate About Legal Age of Marriage of Women in India

Currently, in India, the legal age for marriage has been set at 21 years for men and 18 years for women. But the socio-economic reality of India's patriarchal society is that women are often forced into early marriage. In some cases even below the legal age, and this directly affects their educational status, nutritional status, and as well as their reproductive health. Because early marriage disrupts the education of women, and since it could result in early motherhood, it could affect their nutritional status and as well as their reproductive health. Scientific studies have established that women under the age of 21 are physically and emotionally unprepared to undergo pregnancy and this has a direct impact on the nutritional status and the health of the mother and as well for the child. So, there exists a direct correlation between early marriage early motherhood and high rates of maternal mortality and infant mortality.

So considering the impact of early marriage on the reproductive health of women, and as well as on our educational and nutritional status, Prime Minister Modi had recently recommended in his independence day speech to increase the legal age for marriage for women from the current 18 years to 21 years.
Based on this suggestion of the prime minister in the last year's budget, the finance minister announced the Constitution of a special task force. This task force is headed by Jaya Jaitley and v k Paul, who's a member of the Niti Aaoga for health and the task force also consisted of several senior secretaries from important related ministries of the Government of India, and as well as several experts from the scientific and medical fraternity as well. The primary mandate of this task force was to study the correlation between early marriage and motherhood and recommend appropriate changes to the legal age for marriage for women. So this task force has completed its review and accordingly. It has submitted its report to the Prime Minister's Office. Currently, the details of the report are confidential. But sources have indicated that the task force might have recommended, increasing the legal age for marriage for women from the current 18 years to 21 years.
On the positive side. This is expected to delay early marriage, especially forced marriage amongst women and this could directly translate to better educational and nutritional outcomes amongst women, and as well as improve their reproductive health, which in turn would help in bringing down the MMR and IMR rates of the country. While this proposal might seem to be very progressive on the health and education front, and as well as about women empowerment. This proposal also has a few drawbacks and hence, it has been opposed by several activists and institutions because the proposal to increase the marriage age for women from 18 years to 21 years raises several legal and social challenges for the socio-economic reality of the country is that in India's patriarchal society, early marriage for women is the norm, and law alone cannot change social attitudes overnight. The legal problem is that laws, such as the prohibition of child marriage act, and the protection of children from Sexual Offences Act designate the age of consent as 18 years. So if the legal age for marriage for women is raised to 21 years, then this could create enormous scope for the misuse of these two laws.

The problem is that when there is a difference between the age of consent and the legal age for marriage. These laws that prohibit child marriage and protect children from sexual offenses could be misused. Because then even consensual marriages can be targeted, because if a boy marries a minor. under the age of 18, or if he marries a girl in the age group of 18 to 21, then potentially false charges of child marriage and sexual offenses could be filed against the boy and his family. And along with this, there could also be cases where parents have not consented to the marriage of two others, and even they could file false charges against the boy and the girl. To get those marriages declared as void. For assets result, there is a possibility of an increase in false charges, and it could also impact the right of the individual to marry a partner of his or her choice. But despite these legal and social problems delayed marriage also has a lot of benefits and this is what leads to a debate on this topic.

So the question is, should we forego these benefits, just because this could create legal and social challenges. The answer to this debate lies in the findings of several studies, and as well as in the recommendations of the Law Commission and the National Human Rights Commission. See studies around the world have shown a clear link between delayed marriage and higher levels of education, and higher levels of income amongst women, it's very true that women who are more educated and women who are from urban areas, and those women who have more disposable income are likely to delay their marriage. And this also results in delayed pregnancy, as they are more empowered and more aware, to make an informed choice, instead of being forced by their families. On the other hand, it's also very true, that women with lower education levels and predominantly women from rural areas and poor communities are often forced into early marriages, and thereby early pregnancies, which poses a direct threat to their reproductive health. So one suggestion is that instead of enforcing the increasing legal age to 21 years through strict law. It is better to just prescribe the legal age as 21 years for both men and women, and focus more on improving the educational status and the economic status of women. For example, under the Right to Education Act, the coverage could be extended till 18 years because currently children in the age group of 14 to 18 years have been left out. And this could help in improving the educational status of women.
Next, the government could focus on several livelihood programs specifically targeted at women to improve their economic status, which would naturally transform their social status as well, especially in a patriarchal society. So when women themselves are given the choice and the power to decide upon their marriage and pregnancy, it would naturally delay motherhood as well and pushed it beyond 21 years as prescribed by the scientific and medical community. 
The other suggestion is to follow the recommendations of the Law Commission of India and the NHRC, the law commission in its 2008 report had recommended a common marriage age for both men and women and it had prescribed the age at 18 years. Because according to the law commission, if individuals are fit to be treated as adults, after 18 years. And if they are fit to vote after 18 years, then they should also be set as the desirable age for marriage, because the law Commission argued that this would provide for Standardization in the marriage age, without having two different ages for men and women, the NHRC as well, had backed this recommendation of the law commission and it had suggested a reduction in the marriage age of men to 18 years so that a common standard age could be set for both men and women for marriage. The same recommendations have also been provided by the Justice Varma Committee, and as well as by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights because this would help in avoiding the legal and the social challenges, and instead of strictly enforcing a legal age for marriage to a law It is better to promote behavioral and social changes by promoting the educational and economic standards of women. So as you can see, there are two sides to this argument, and the concerns of both sides, need to be appreciated to develop a balanced debate.

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