India cabinet approves move to raise minimum age of marriage for women

India’s government has decided to raise the minimum age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years in a bid to empower young women and deter child marriage, a move that activists described as necessary but far short of being enough to solve more deep-rooted societal problems.

The move will make the marriageable age for women equal to that of men, which already stands at 21. Prime minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet approved the proposal on Wednesday, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency, well over a year after Mr Modi said the matter was under discussion by a task force during his 2020 Independence Day address.

The government has said that the move is intended to reduce pregnancies in younger women — a major factor that alongside poor nutrition contributes to India’s significant maternal mortality rate (MMR). In her budget speech in 2020, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman referred to the formation of the task force which has now recommended the minimum age change, saying that “[the] entire issue about the age of a girl entering motherhood needs to be seen in this light (of MMR)”.

Jaya Jaitly, a veteran politician who headed the task force which recommended Wednesday’s decision among other proposals, said the move was based on “extensive consultations” with experts as well as young women because it affected them directly.

“We have had feedback from 16 universities and engaged over 15 NGOs [non-governmental organisations] to reach out to young people, particularly in rural and marginalised communities, such as in particular districts in Rajasthan where child marriage is quite prevalent. Feedback was taken across religions, and from urban and rural areas, equally,” she told The Indian Express newspaper.

“Across the board, the feedback we received from young adults is that the age of marriage should be 22-23 years. There have been objections from certain quarters, but we felt it was more important to be guided by the target group,” Ms Jaitly added.

Child marriage remains a major issue in many parts of India, and national crime records say the practice spiked by as much as 50 per cent rise during the Covid-induced lockdown last year.

Government data show that before then child marriages were slowly trending downwards, but the proportion of women aged 20 to 24 who said they had got married before the age of 18 was still 23.3 per cent in the latest National Family Health Survey 2019-21. Infant mortality also remains very high in rural areas, at 35.2 per cent in the latest survey compared to 40.7 per cent in 2015-16.

Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, one of the organisations that campaigned for increasing the marriageable age for women, hailed the move and said that this will give women equality and agency.

“It is important to understand that when girls get married at 18, they have no option but to be dependent on their husbands and they have no agency to make any kind of decisions. This law will give women agency,” she told The Independent.

“This will also help women in understanding their reproductive rights as women will be more mature at 21 and will be able to decide when and how often they want to have children. Most importantly, it will give them a voice to protect themselves against domestic violence. A child bride has no voice but a 21-year-old can speak up,” she added.

However, not all those who work with victims of child marriages and abuse are happy with the government’s decision.

“Young Voices: National Working Group”, a coalition of 96 civil society organisations that banded together in response to the task force, published a report last year after speaking to 2,500 girls from across India that included comprehensive interventions beyond just increasing the age for marriage.

Enakshi Ganguly, co-founder of the HAQ: Centre for Child Rights nonprofit which worked on the report, said she was disappointed their recommendations weren’t included despite “so much effort on our part to bring to them so many voices across sectors from NGOs and young people”. “It means they had [already] made up their mind,” she told The Independent.

“A law alone cannot bring social change. Social change is a long-drawn-out process which involves people making empowered choices based on opportunities that they see for themselves. Just by making the age 2,1 how does it really lead to empowerment?”

She added that marriage age was not a silver bullet for maternal mortality. “If sex and marriage are conflated and we are not going to talk about responsible sexual behaviour, girls will continue to get married just to have sex. We need to talk to them about sex and sexuality,” she said.

Others said that the move by the government, though welcome, only serves to try to “treat symptoms instead of the cause”.

“To deal with early marriages a host of issues need to be addressed, including deep-rooted gender inequality, regressive social norms, financial insecurity, lack of quality education and employment opportunities,” said Poonam Muttreja, executive director of the Population Foundation of India. “Increasing the legal age of marriage would perhaps accomplish little more than pushing more marriages underground as has been the practice in the past,” she added.

Activists said that instead of increasing the age, the focus should be on giving more options to women so that they don’t see marriage as the ultimate goal.

“There is a need for comprehensive interventions, which we had recommended, that include building agency and awareness through education and dialogue so girls see a future for themselves outside marriage,” said Ms Ganguly.

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