Earlier this week, the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021 (“Bill‘) was introduced in Lok Sabha by raising the age of marriage for girls from 18 to 21 based on the principle of equality (i.e. same age of marriage for men and women ) and to ensure that the “physical, mental and reproductive health” of women is protected. Rather than seeing this measure as a step in the right direction, strong dissent has been raised by members of the opposition as well as civil society with arguments that defy logic and reasoning.
Critics have questioned the rationale for the bill on the basis that turning 18 confers majority under Indian law and therefore girls should be given a choice to marry at 18 . These same critics, however, fail to acknowledge the Child Marriage Prohibition Act 2006. (“CMAM”) currently confers the right to marry on boys at 21 and equality requires that the same right be granted to girls as well. Unfortunately, it seems that deep-rooted patriarchal beliefs and customary practices continue to plague the minds of those who do not see the benefits of the social reform bill.
NFHS-5 statistics highlighting that 23.3% of women (aged 20-24) were married before the age of 18 have been cited by critics as evidence of the current law’s failure to address the issue and they argue that increasing the age of marriage will in turn lead to a further increase in numbers. There is no doubt that the enactment of the revised Child Marriage Act following parliamentary approval of the Bill will not on its own solve the problem of child marriage. We are all aware of the plethora of child marriage legislations enacted since India’s independence that have failed to eradicate this social scourge due to a practice deeply rooted in our culture. However, the argument that the incidence of child marriage will increase as a result of the proposed amendment is no reason to avoid passing legislation to reform and the ineffective implementation of CMAM should not nor be used as a defense to avoid a change in the law. On the contrary, to realize the vision behind the bill and impact the girls most vulnerable to child marriage, including those in rural India and lower wealth quartiles, the implementation is essential and should be at the center of political reform. In addition, grassroots advocacy campaigns are essential to raise community awareness and create catalysts for change within these communities. In addition, the national education policy should act as a catalyst to ensure girls have access to secondary and tertiary education as well as skills development opportunities, to empower them to make life choices. more enlightened rather than letting others decide their lives. destiny.
Of all the arguments advanced by critics, the least defensible and most absurd interprets the amendment as a way to criminalize women’s sexuality. The link drawn by critics between a law restricting marriage to those under 21 and restricting women’s sexual choices assumes that all child marriages are consummated by girls of their own accord as a consequence of sexual freedom. This limited understanding of child marriage and sexual freedom needs serious overhaul.
For those wishing to weigh in on the current debate and understand the impact of changing the age of marriage for girls, an overview of the evidence from a longitudinal study is highly relevant and should be considered amidst anecdotal opinion and subjective offered by persistent objectors. . Unlike voices from the “field” that rely on hearsay, data collected over 19 years from a cohort of 3,000 children, drawn from a pro-poor sample since 2002, includes data relating to marriage early childhood, teenage pregnancy, school trajectories, transitions to work. etc Data from the longitudinal study reveal that only 10.3% of girls who married before age 21 made the transition to higher education while 62.5% of girls who married after age 21 made the transition to higher education. opportunity to go to higher education. / technical colleges, In addition, the regression analysis reveals that the age of marriage is significantly associated with transitions in the labor market with only 5% of girls married before the age of 21 holding regular wage employment, compared to 13% among daughters married at age 21 and later.
The study also finds that there is a significant difference in the psychological well-being of girls married before age 21 and those married at age 21 and older, with the latter showing significantly higher levels of well-being. In terms of intergenerational transmission of poverty, stunting levels of children born to girls married before age 21 were also higher (39%) than those married at age 21 and older (35%). The data from the longitudinal study underlines that at age 26, only 29% of those married at age 21 and over had two or more children, compared to 77% of girls married before age 21, who had given birth to two or more children. In addition, qualitative interviews conducted as part of the study highlight how early marriage of girls (before age 21) is a major barrier to women’s empowerment with higher incidence of violence and limited decision-making and perpetuate the intergenerational transmission of poverty. .
In my opinion, the bill is a positive step in the right direction and can become the harbinger of social change. Nonetheless, it is equally important that Section 3 of the PCMA be amended to nullify child marriage ab initio. As a society, we owe our young people the opportunity to grow, be nurtured and develop to their fullest potential rather than being locked into the confines of early marriage due to outdated customs and traditions and , even worse, due to chronic poverty and lack of education. Those against the bill must understand that instead of being driven by political trends and posturing, the welfare of our young people must remain at the center of the debate and we must ensure the rights of young Indians to do informed marriage choices.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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