From 18 to 21: Not a silver bullet, but it’s a start

Raising women's age of marriage: Not a silver bullet, but it’s a start

Some have questioned why the age of marriage should even be a priority when so much else remains undone when it comes to women's health and agency

The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill might not work on the ground, but the message it sends out to young women is too important to ignore. Credit: PTI File Photo

The Union Government's Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) or PCMA Bill, 2021 seeking to revise the marriageable age of women from 18 to 21 has raised a storm in the Parliament. It has invited critique in equal measure: both for its positioning and for the law itself. 

Its stated objectives are women empowerment, gender equality, increasing labour force participation, improving women's physical and mental health, reducing infant and maternal mortality, and ensuring self-reliance and decision making.

Such overarching ambit raises the bar of outcomes so astronomically that a simple adjustment of age is unlikely to bring it to bear.

Meanwhile, the law itself is at odds with other legislation concerning minors and children, which might make it untenable. While Standing Committees in the past have suggested making the age of marriage 18 across genders, this law has pegged it at 21.

Also Read | From 18 to 21: A step in the right direction

Socio-religious reform laws in India are controversial. The Hindu Code Bill of the 1950s caused such a ruckus that it had to be partly piecemealed and partly dispatched to cold storage.

The Criminal Law Amendments of 2013, based on the Justice Verma Committee recommendations, were conceived against the backdrop of nation-wide protests, after the gruesome Nirbhaya gang-rape and killing.

The PCMA Bill has been dispatched with critique to a Parliamentary Panel.

Expert public opinion has also been disapproving of the PCMA. Some have questioned why the age of marriage should even be a priority when so much else remains undone when it comes to women's health and agency. Some have pointed out that the law may actually "boomerang" on couples under 21 who have eloped, now pregnant and seeking natal care whilst now deemed underaged. 

Also Read | The Women and Child Development Ministry had a busy 2021

Others have suggested equalising by lowering the marriageable age of males to 18 since adulthood is universally accepted as such for other purposes.

Most of these are legitimate concerns and objections that the government must heed. 

The Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), for example, while robust on paper, has been consistently underfunded in the past few years. Half of India's pregnant women are anaemic (National Family Health Survey), a condition that doubles risk during pregnancy. Yet, the ICDS, a harbinger of India's future, has received third class treatment.

Historically, many of India's well-intentioned laws and well-crafted policies have failed on the ground. Weak state capacity coupled with inconsistent political will has made for patchy and erratic implementation resulting in a poor showing; but it is also true that the law is no silver bullet.

In that sense, these complaints are tautological. Child marriages, as with other pernicious practices, are vexed socio-economic issues. They stand at the confluence of a multiplicity of social issues: patriarchy, poverty, religion and tradition.

Space for legislation

While there might be no singular panacea to child marriage, the unfortunate fact is that 22% of India's brides are children! From awareness creation and education, to economic opportunity and incentives, there is space for all of these, and for legislation.

And yes, while there is an enormity of wasted opportunity for sound law making towards gender equity, it cannot stop laws on other fronts. 

The experts are right that the government needs to educate its health and law enforcement staff, and enlist non-governmental groups to spread awareness on the issue. The net effect must be the persuasion of adults and the accommodation of underaged and/or pregnant couples, rather than a focus on punitive measures. This needs to be done extensively and on war footing through states and local governments to minimise the "boomerang" effect which will cause the law to backfire.

The suggestion of lowering men's age to 18 suffers from the same vexed issues. Normative marriage in India is between an older male and a younger female. This patriarchal tradition, when coupled with an 18-year age limit for males will drive the age of brides down, increasing child brides. This will lead to lower educational and health attainments of women — all recidivist social outcomes.

While it is a fact that 18 is the commonly accepted age of consent, it is also true that marriage inevitably leads to pregnancy sooner than otherwise, causing women to drop out of study and gainful employment.

And unlike voting or drinking, marriage has lifetime implications; the socio-legal system treats it like a prison with little or no exit options, unlike in other democracies.

Simply put, there is no easy answer. An age limit of 21 infantalises adults while the current age limit of 18 has been denying fundamental rights to women.

Previous examples

The circumscribed impact of gendered legislation is illustrated well by the Hindu inheritance laws. They were equalised in various states, starting with the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N T Rama Rao's pioneering reform in the 1980s. The Union got around to a more gender equitable Hindu Succession Act only in 2005.

Still, barely 13% of women inherit property and 20% co-own homes today. No more than 10% of men are willing to part with a rightful share of their property.

Such examples abound. Should we then not legislate against social evils at all, just because they are prone to violations? After all, if a single law could bring social transformation, casteism would have long been felled and buried.

Legislation, then, is not only an instrument to protect people's rights but also to direct society. Such direction, when it is against the grain of common tradition, will face tremendous implementation hurdles and some adverse consequences, both of which need to be minimised by state action.

Nevertheless, a law, in and of itself, is significant in signalling intent. A message — that the state wants women to enter marriage later, bear children later and instead, gainfully develop their faculties, will have a positive impact on society. 

At 21, women will certainly be better equipped to take life-changing marital decisions. That is a new message. It may not be enough, but is certainly loud and clear for the majority of law-abiding citizens.

For the throes of middle-class girls in high school and college, this is a veritable Brahmastra against the daily insufferable pressures from families to tie the knot. It may not be much by way of governance, but it makes for good headlines. 

And that is how the ruling BJP gains political mileage with first-time female voters in poll-bound states.

(Tara Krishnaswamy is a co-founder of Political Shakti and Citizens for Bengaluru)

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