Mala* (name changed to protect identity) from a village in Budaun district of Uttar Pradesh had always dreamed of getting married. In July, however, when her parents told the 13-year-old that she was getting married to a man much older than herself, she panicked. Her father, who had lost his job during the pandemic, was struggling to make ends meet and the family thought it best to marry the daughter off. A student of Class VIII, Mala ran away from her home and told her friends from school about it. Thankfully, the girls from Mala’s school had recently attended a workshop with a local child rights NGO, which had given them a helpline number. With the help of her classmates, Mala managed to inform her teachers and the NGO officials, who intervened to stop the marriage. The incident happened months after India decided to raise the age of marriage for children, in order to eliminate child marriage.
The Narendra Modi government in March announced its decision to increase the age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years under the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021.
The move has been welcomed by women and child rights activists and healthcare workers, who opine that a uniform marriage age will help reduce child marriages and also aid women in other spheres such as education, labour force participation, reproductive health, sexual safety, autonomy and domestic abuse. But can pushing the age of marriage back by three years alone help reverse all these factors that were forged over centuries of gender discrimination and oppression? Not all agree.
“Child marriage is not just an expression of patriarchy, but of other social problems as well. Poverty, unemployment and skewed sex ratios push a large number of families into either marrying off their daughters at a young age or even selling them off for money,” ActionAid’s Kahkashan Perween from Lucknow tells Outlook. In Uttar Pradesh, where one in five girls is reportedly a child bride, the employment rate is as low as 30 per cent. Moreover, Perveen notes that the pandemic-induced job-loss and economic stress has led to a spike in child marriages in rural districts, even though a majority remain unreported.
“Sometimes, it’s a matter of survival. In a patriarchal household, young girls are the most dispensable items,” Perween adds. Raising the age of marriage, the activist feels, looks good on paper, but does nothing to solve the underlying factors that contribute to child marriages.
Studies show that women who are married off under a certain age and give early birth, conceive stunted, anaemic or malnourished babies, and themselves face nutrient deficiencies, high miscarriage rates and problems in future pregnancies. However, the impact of child marriage is not limited to one generation alone. Renu Singh, Director, Young India Research Centre, tells Outlook that studies show significant linkages between the age of a woman at the time of conception and “inter-generational transition of poverty”—where poverty is passed on from one generation to the next.
Early marriages directly impact women’s participation in the labour force. Both secondary and primary research and national datasets reveal multiple issues that women face in labour market transition, in cases of early marriages. “There is also a direct impact on a woman’s ability to access higher education, which in turn has a significant impact on her employment opportunities. Thus, we see the cyclical damage of marrying girls at a young age,” Singh states.
But will raising the age of marriage automatically raise access to higher education for women?
According to educationist Bharti Ali, such beliefs are nothing but wishful thinking. “Uniform marriage age is not a magic wand that will magically solve women’s problems in India,” Ali says, adding it may buy women more time to negotiate with their parents, but won’t encourage investment in her education.
“Data shows that a majority of cases of child marriage occur in rural, agrarian families. With increasing privatisation in education making higher education a costly affair, it is impractical to expect that the family will invest in the girls’ education simply because they have more time before they could marry her off. They simply don’t have the money,” Ali states.
Ali notes that while the government had its heart in the right place when increasing the marriage age for women, India continues to lack effective mechanisms to implement the law. Despite a ban on child marriages, the latest data from the National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5) 2019-21 shows that 14.7 per cent of women in India in the 20-24 age group in urban areas, were married off before they turned 18. The percentage was as high as 27 in rural areas. Not only child brides, the NFHS-5 also recorded a sizeable number of child mothers, with 3.8 per cent rural women and 7.9 per cent urban women in the 15-19 age group being pregnant or having already given birth.
“Instead of thumping one’s own chest on marriage age, the government and judiciary need to focus on bringing reforms individually across issues, such as education, domestic violence, employment, skilling, reproductive health and family planning,” Ali tells Outlook.
Issues relating to gender equality and women’s rights can’t work in silos. A mechanism to monitor child marriages not only requires adequate child protection officers, gender-sensitised police force and government staff, but also entire communities at the gram panchayat levels who are sensitised, and with children as the advocates. Legislation is only a beginning.
Incidentally, the Centre, by its own admission, relied on a 2017 SC judgment in a marital rape exemption case, in which the court had ruled that intercourse with a minor wife is rape, simply by virtue of her being a minor. The verdict, though landmark in terms of child-protection, cleverly side-stepped the question of women’s consent, on which debates supporting the criminalisation of marital rape have been anchored.
Ali points out that by making marriage under 21 illegal, the legal system has once again denied women their agency for consent. “Not all marriages are forced. Some women choose to get married, say to get out of abusive paternal homes or financial stress. Making marriage a punitive matter can become a very messy affair.”