Will increasing marriage age to 21 help women?
The potential of this step should be gauged based on data-centric evidence and not by the face value of the change in law.
Arrey ab ladki ki shaadi karaani hai kuch socha hai…. ghar ka kaam sikhao, zyada ladko ke saath na milne do…(Have you thought about your girl’s marriage? … Teach her housework, don’t let her mingle with boys a lot)—these are commonly uttered when it comes to discussions about the marriage of girls. Very rarely do we come across questions such as: “Is she legally eligible?”, “What does she want”, “Has she completed her education?”, “Is she healthy and well enough to bear bigger responsibilities?”
The recently introduced Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which seeks to raise the age of legal marriage for women from 18 to 21, is said to be a pro-woman step towards gender equality and women empowerment, while also addressing the issues with underage marriages such as maternal mortality rate (MMR), infant mortality rate (IMR) and malnutrition. However, the potential of this step should be gauged based on data-centric evidence and not by the face value of the change in law.
India is usually near the bottom of international rankings on gender indicators. And it also ranks among the lowest in the world when it comes to women’s empowerment as the country has the largest absolute number of girls who marry below the age of 18. The recently published National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5) says that over 23% of women aged 20–24 got married before age 18. And the problem is more severe in rural areas, where the underage marriage rate is 27%. The statistics indicate that though we have laws well in place to prohibit child marriages, underage weddings are still a grave cause of concern. In light of the above data, the question is whether the rise in marriage age can really lead to women empowerment, gender equality, increased female participation in the labour market, autonomy and better health outcomes for women and children.
Gender parity is a practice and not mere legal acknowledgement of women’s rights. Equating the age of marriage for men and women are notions of equality that are limited to the surface level and do not contribute to real empowerment. Again the fact is well reflected through the data on early marriages, despite the long-standing child marriage prohibition act.
Whether the age of marriage is 18 or 21, what’s important is that girls should not be forced into early marriages. And marriages should not be the criteria to validate womanhood and then motherhood. Early marriages can be avoided when underlying causes such as fear for daughter’s safety, social stigma, fear of inter-caste/community relationship, poverty, lack of education, societal pressure, fear of rise in dowry demand and burden to feed one extra member are addressed. Unfortunately none of these are getting addressed by changing a girl’s age of marriage from 18 to 21. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data says that dowry-related matters accounted for the lives of 19 women daily in 2020. And a total of 6,966 cases of dowry deaths were reported in 2020.
In our minds, we associate a higher marriage age with improvement in MMR and IMR, i.e. rise in the age of marriage will lead to an increase in the age of motherhood, which means a healthier child and mother. But this is likely not true. Rather, women from privileged groups tend to marry late; hence, age looks like a deciding factor. Whereas the fact is that health indicators do not vary for women from less privileged groups even if they marry at a higher age. For instance, data from NFHS-4 shows that the level of anaemia, a key factor in MMR, shows no change even at marriage age up to 25 years, keeping other factors controlled. Hence, this points to the fact that poverty and malnourishment are the prime contributors to MMR and IMR.
Let us look at the issue of gender-based violence using a report published in 2018 by the NCRB: i) it shows that once every 1.7 minutes, a crime against a woman is recorded; ii) a woman is subjected to domestic violence every 4.4 minutes. This also topped the categories of violence against women, according to the report. A multi-country study by the World Bank a few years ago saw no significant gains from raising the age of marriage for women’s decision-making or helping them find jobs. So, in a society where women have internalised the patriarchal notion of getting disrespected as valid—in NFHS-4, 52% of women respondents felt it was reasonable for the husband to hit his wife—how does the trend of deep-rooted gender stereotyping and bias get addressed while raising the marriage age?
It has been evident time and again that ensuring delayed marriage and pregnancy does not just depend on the legal age. On the other hand, the relationship between the level of education and early marriage is well established. Experts say that often the girl child drops out after primary school simply because she has no access to higher education and is then married off. Also, a study by the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) has found that girls out of school are 3.4 times more likely to be married or have their wedding already fixed than those who are still studying. Similarly, according to the State of the World Report 2020 by UNFPA, in India, 51% of young women with no education and 47% of those with only a primary education had married by age 18, compared to 29% of young women with a secondary education and 4% with post-secondary education. And with higher levels of education, women are also empowered to take decisions within the family and better equipped to inculcate safe sex, family planning and safe abortion practices.
Holistic empowerment is about enabling women to make informed decisions, giving access to facilities, enabling them to exercise greater agency in their family life and providing opportunities for good paid employment. And education automates the process of attaining the desired empowerment, which is more sustainable while also addressing the cycle of poverty, intergenerational malnutrition and early marriage. And for this, concerted efforts should be taken to i) keep girls in school for longer and ii) enable them to complete higher education or vocational training.
As we have seen, the current act will likely not have a substantial effect on issues of gender, violence and women’s health. So expecting women empowerment just by raising the marriage age to 21 is too ambitious.
(The author has about 12 years of extensive experience in advocacy, focusing on developmental themes such as gender equality, women empowerment, child safety, and maternal child health & nutrition)
Social development professional
In our minds, we associate a higher marriage age with improvement in infant and maternal mortality rates. Or in other words, a rise in the age of marriage is thought to lead to an increase in the age of motherhood, which means a healthier child and mother. But this is likely not true. Rather, women from privileged groups tend to marry late; hence, age appears to be a deciding factor