CHENNAI: The Centre’s decision of constituting a committee to reconsider the minimum age of marriage for women has been welcomed by activists and political leaders alike.
In June, a special panel constituted by the Union Ministry for Women and Child Development was entrusted with the task of identifying the association between age, sex, death rate, the wellbeing of mothers and new born babies.
Although the review of marriage age was proposed with an objective to reduce the Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR), Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) and enhance nutritional level of women, the legal marriage age of women has been keeping the political pot boiling in the State, especially in the context of inter-caste marriages.
PMK founder S Ramadoss has been demanding an increase in the legal marriage age of women to 21.
In a statement welcoming the Centre’s decision, Ramadoss said more than poverty, love and marriage at an inappropriate age pose hindrance to the growth of women in our country.
He also recalled that in 2011 and 2014, the Karnataka High Court and the Madurai Bench of Madras High Court had suggested raising the marriage age to 21 respectively.
However, activists welcomed the decision on the grounds that there is no justification for keeping the women’s age lower than men for marriage.
Activist and senior advocate Sudha Ramalingam termed the move as progressive.
“Higher age for men is an outcome of our own ingrained ideology of male supremacy. Conventionally, keeping the age lower for women in marriage has been justified on the grounds of better compatibility among the couple, but it is by itself a flawed approach and against concept of equality,”, she said adding that Gandhi’s wife Kasturiba was elder to him and the incumbent French President is younger than his wife. In the context of inter-caste marriages, Ramalingam pointed out such marriages are valid as per existing laws.
Writer and VCK MP D Ravikumar welcomed the decision, but remained sceptical as the mere increase in marriage age will not improve the health condition of women.
“Health parameters such as MMR and IMR are both linked to literacy and age. The Centre should have a holistic approach linking education and health to achieve better health indicators,” he pointed out. According to a UN report, over 15 lakh child marriages happen across India every year, says Ravikumar.
“Though these marriages are null and void in the eyes of law, what differences does it make on the ground? If the marriage age is increased, the records will show higher number of child marriages in India,” said Ravikumar, adding that the proposed qualifying examinations for lower classes in National Education Policy at schools will multiply dropouts among women.
Ravikumar added that regardless of the intention of PMK, the demand for increasing the marriage age of women cannot be faulted.
Noting that adulthood and age of marriage are two different things, Ramalingam said the age for consensual sex can be retained at 18, while increasing the marriage age to 21.
“Men’s marriage age is 21, but the age of consent is 18 legally. The same yardstick should not be changed for women”.
DMK Lok Sabha MP and party’s women’s wing secretary Kanomozhi on Sunday tweeted, “The Prime Minister’s announcement that the minimum age of marriage for women will be reconsidered and raised from 18 to 21 is a welcome step in the right direction to empower women. On the same note, PM should also take steps to pass 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament & legislatures to empower Indian women.”
Besides, health experts say the optimal age of marriage for women is 21 years.
“Morbidity in both mother and the baby, babies with low birth weight and preterm labour are some of the issues in early pregnancy. When women get married at the age of 18 years, their body is not prepared for childbirth. Birth canal formation is completed after 18 years.
In that adolescent age, girls are not mentally prepared to give birth to a child,” says Dr J Kumutha, Expert Advisor for Child Health, Tamil Nadu.
“These girls also cannot tolerate labour pain and don’t cooperate during childbirth. In States like Kerala, they mostly get married after completing their degree. But in many other States including Tamil Nadu, many girls get married after or even before completing their Class 12. That is, when they are 17 years or younger. The optimal marriage age for women is 21.”
Timeline of women marriage age in India
1860: Sexual intercourse with a girl below the age of 10 declared criminal office in Section 375 of IPC.
1891: Legal age for consensual sex fixed at 12 through Age of Consent Act, 1891.
1927: Age for consensual sex raised to 14 through amendment of ACA 1891. For the first time, marriage below the age of 12 girls are declared null and void.
1929: Minimum age for marriage increased to 14 for women and 18 for men.
1940: Age of marriage for women increased to 16.
1978: Age for marriage for women increased to 18 and 21 for men.
2013: Age for consensual sex is 18.