Address poverty, education to curb child marriage
In a necessary move, the Union government has referred the controversial Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021, to a Standing Committee of Parliament.
Published: 23rd December 2021 07:04 AM | Last Updated: 23rd December 2021 07:04 AM | A+A A-
In a necessary move, the Union government has referred the controversial Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021, to a Standing Committee of Parliament. However, while doing so, the BJP-led NDA claimed that progressive decisions of the government were being stalled. The Bill, if passed, will effectively raise the age at which women can marry from 18 to 21, on par with men. The reason for this endeavour is ostensibly to prevent child marriages and reduce teenage pregnancies. However, there are valid reasons as to why this piece of legislation is unlikely to make any difference to the prevalence of child marriage (a practice that cuts across regions and religions and has increased over the course of the pandemic).
First, the Bill says it will reduce teen pregnancies, ensuring the health and safety of young mothers. However, 18 is effectively the age of consent to sex, with the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act defining a child as a person under that age. Does the government believe that the only people in the nation having consensual sex and getting pregnant are married couples? Second, an 18-year-old can drive, vote, drink and consent to sex.
Why does a person able to make decisions for the country have to wait three more years to get married? Third, has legislation on marriageable age eradicated child marriages? Of course not. According to the National Family Health Survey-4 (2015–16), about a fourth of women (26.8%) aged 20–24 were married before they turned 18. This fell only marginally to 23.3% in the NFHS-5 (2019–21) despite the 2006 legislation raising a woman’s age for marriage to 18.
Yet, in states such as TN, the NFHS-5 showed only 12.8% of women married before they turned 18 while in Kerala, arguably India’s most developed state, the figure was just 6.3%. Experts point out that addressing poverty and ensuring education for the girl child are the factors that will actually reduce child marriage and ensure better maternal health. Yet, in the absence of meaningful investments to facilitate these improvements, legislation will only serve to criminalise the families of girls and leave them more vulnerable.