Child marriage is a perpetual evil of the Indian society. It refers to the formal or informal union of a boy or a girl before the age of 18. It can very aptly be called a violation of children’s human rights and a kind of gender based violence that robs the children of their very childhood.
On 21 December, 2021, Tuesday, the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021 was introduced by the Government in the Lok Sabha. It was to amend the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 which seeks to raise the age of marriage for girls from 18 to 21 years. With this decision, the government will be bringing the age at par for both men and women. Besides, the above said amendment aims to have an overriding effect on the contrary provisions contained under the personal laws. Various religions, including that of Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Parsis have their own personal laws dealing with marriage. As far as set by the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, for Hindus, 18 years is the minimum age for the girls and 21 as that for boys. In Islamic law, the marriage is considered valid for those who have attained puberty.
The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 and the Special Marriage Act, 1954 sets 18 and 21 years as the minimum age of consent for marriage for bride and the groom, respectively. The above said laws are expected to be amended for the new age of marriage to be implemented.
The bill was introduced by Smriti Irani, the minister for women and child development, making it clear that the bill seeks to override all the existing laws, including “any custom, usage or practice governing the parties relating to marriage. Amid the protests from the opposition parties, Irani said that the prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) bill, 2021 would be sent to a parliamentary standing committee. Further, she justified that the bill was a decisive step so as to achieve parity between the marriageable ages of both men and women.
Asserting it as a secular measure, she stressed on its uniform applicability to all castes, religions. She said, “We are in our democracy 75 years late in providing equal rights to men and women to enter into matrimony. In the 19th Century, the age of marriage of girls was 10 years. In 1940, it was raised from 12 to 14 years. In 1978, the marriageable age for girls was 15 years. Today, for the first time both men and women can take a decision to get married at the age of 21 keeping in view equality as the basis. According to analysis, 20 lakh child marriages have been stopped from 2015 until 2020. As per the data of National Family Health survey (NFHS-5), nearly 7% of girls aged 15 to 18 have been found pregnant and 23% girls under 18 years were married though the law didn’t permit it.”
Prime Minister Modi, in his Independence Day speech in the year 2020, mentioned about setting a committee to deliberate on the minimum age of marriage for girls. With all the above instances in view, the bill was sent to a parliamentary standing committee on Education, Women, Children, Youth and Sports for further discussions on 22 December, 2021. Those panels were constituted by both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. According to the list of the members of the parliamentary standing committee, led by senior BJP leader Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, TMC MP Sushmita Dev was the only woman among the total 31 members. Ms. Dev told PTI that such interests of the group could be understood better if there were more women MPs in the panel.
Holding similar opinions, NCP MP Supriya Sule added that the chairman has the authority to invite people before the panel for more inclusive and in depth discussions on the same. The proposed law will be applicable to the people of all the communities in the country and would supplant the existing marriage and personal laws. Some members, in opposition, contended that such a bill is in violation of fundamental rights and upon the several personal laws. The main objective of the amendment resides in raising the legal age of marriage for women. Moreover it seeks to amend Seven personal laws- The Indian Christian Marriage Act; the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act; the Muslim Personal law (Shariat) Application Act; the Special Marriage Act; the Foreign Marriage Act and the Hindu Marriage Act.
The decision of the cabinet to raise the legal age of marriage for women is based on the recommendation of a panel led by Jaya Jaitly. In June 2020, the ministry of Women and Child Development set up a task force to look into the interconnection to health and social indicators such as infant mortality rate, prevalence of anemia, MMR, and nutrition levels among mothers and children. The committee has said that in order for the law to be effective, the access to education and livelihood must be enhanced concurrently. The Government decided to reconsider this amendment due to the most important reason of gender neutrality. Early age marriages can consequently lead to early pregnancies, and may have profound effects on nutritional level of mothers and their children as well as their overall well being.
Child marriages can also increase risks of sexually transmitted diseases. According to Jaitly, the proposal is based on the grounds for the encouragement of Women empowerment and gender equality rather than that of population control.
Amid this brazen step of the government, there were several instances of defiance behavior in the political arena. The Congress alleged the intention of the bill as “highly suspect and motivated”, and also called for it to be referred to a Standing committee for review. The AICC general secretary K.C. Venugopal was of the opinion that hurriedly bringing of the bill by the Modi government is politically motivated. No clear discussions were held with the stakeholders before the introduction of such a bill. Thus, congress was not in favor of any attempt of the government in regard to this bill. Further, he alleged that rather than bringing this bill without proper scrutiny, the government must pay attention to the long pending women reservation bill.
The second largest opposition party in Rajya Sabha, the Trinamool Congress was not ready to form its opinion before consulting their leader, Mamata Banerjee. Apart from the above said parties, several oppositions were faced from the SP, Left parties, AIMIM and IUML.
Experts from population and family planning fields including the women’s right activists were not in favor of the above said amendment as it may consequently lead to illegal marriages. They further claimed that even when the marriageable age was 18 years, child marriages were still prevalent in India. According to the NFHS-5 survey, the National Average of underage marriages has come down from 26.8% reported in NFHS-4 to 23.3%.
This decrease was estimated due to an increase in the girl’s education and employment opportunities than that of the prevailing law. Thus, it is imperative to deal with issues of gender discrimination inequality and to provide safeguards to women for health, education and empowerment to women. Apart from raising the minimum age of marriage, more sustained efforts like higher education, rights in property, safe working environment and treating them equally are of utmost importance. Unless stern implementation of the laws and strict punishments are not ensured, issuing such bills is of very little use.
This article is written by Ishita Gupta of Panjab University chandigarh.