5 Reasons Changing The Minimum Age Of Marriage Is A Bad Move

5 Reasons Changing The Minimum Age Of Marriage Is A Bad Move

The government is considering raising the minimum age of marriage for young women from 18 to 21, ostensibly to delay the age of motherhood, improve nutritional levels among young mothers and decrease maternal mortality rates. 

While this seems like a progressive step at the outset, a deeper look shows us that such a move would not be empowering for women in India – it would actually do the opposite!

We know that early marriage in India is the result of several deep-rooted social norms, such as the belief that women’s honour will be protected only if she is married, women will be safe from sexual violence if they are married, early marriage assures a lower dowry, and that early marriage prevents elopement.

These deep-rooted norms are unlikely to shift by raising the minimum age. Consequently, the families of the 63% of women in India who get married under the age of 21, most of whom belong to poor and marginalized communities, will be turned into criminals overnight with the introduction of this move.

Here is a list of reasons that demonstrate clearly that raising the age of marriage is a bad move. 

  1. Child marriage is already reducing in India.

According to NFHS data, rates of early marriage in India fell from 47% in 2005-06 to 27% in 2015-16. Further, the median age of marriage in India increased from 16.7 years in 1998-99 to 17.2 years in 2005-06 to 19 years in 2014-15.

This improvement has been found to be because of increased access to education, skilling, healthcare and jobs. When girls can study further and earn money, it causes a change in attitude and a willingness to invest in them and delay their marriages. 

These factors are proven to organically increase the age of marriage. Why is the government then focussing its energy on introducing a change in policy that seeks to criminalize people?

  1. Poor quality and access to education directly causes early marriage to occur. 

Girls end up dropping out of school due to the poor quality of education, lack of infrastructure like toilets, prevalence of sexual harassment, or poverty – which then leads to early marriage. Investing in secondary and higher education for girls has been proven to decrease rates of early marriage. 

Research shows that villages with high schools  have a much lower rate of early marriage. According to NFHS–4 data, the median age at first marriage for women increases from 17.2 years for women with no schooling to 22.7 years for women with 12 or more years of schooling. 

India’s education system is failing its girls. It is strongly advisable that these gaps in the system be the priority of the government. 

  1. The existing law governing child marriage – PCMA – is not very effective  on the ground.

The minimum age of marriage for girls has been 18 years since 1978. Despite the steady decline of child marriage rates in India, the country continues to have the highest absolute number of underage brides in the world – despite the existence of the Prevention of Child Marriages Act (PCMA), 1978 and 2006.

In 2018, only 501 cases were booked under the PCMA Act, even though data suggests that one in four women in India is still getting married under the age of 18. Clearly, the law is not being effectively used to stop or reduce the number of early marriages from occurring. 

At the grassroots, it is found that the PCMA is overwhelmingly used by parents of girls to prevent self-arranged marriages. Here, young people that are getting married of their own accord find themselves criminalized, simply for exercising their choice. The PCMA is not being used widely to stop cases of coerced or forced early marriages, due to the deep-rooted acceptance that such social customs enjoy in society. 

When the existing law is not effective, simply focusing on age and punitive measures will not improve the situation. Raising the age of marriage to 21 will increase the vulnerability and harm of young people – the very people it is meant to protect. 

  1. Early marriage is the consequence of deep-seated social norms that need to be tackled at the root. 

The practice of early marriage is the consequence of deep-seated social norms. Society believes that marrying girls off at an early age reduces the price of dowry, and protects them from sexual violence. Marriage and chastity are deeply connected to notions of purity and honour of the family. Girls are further seen as financial burdens (paraya dhan) who need to be married off at a young age. Investing in girls’ education is viewed as an unnecessary expense. 

These social norms will not disappear because of a punitive  policy. In fact, such a move will only succeed in driving these marriages underground, such that they are carried out in secret. Early marriages continue to enjoy social acceptance, despite the existence of an Act (PCMA) that criminalizes them. 

In 2015-16, 63% of young women were married before the age of 21. Among the poorest 20% of the population, the percentage of women marrying below the age of 21 is as high as 75%. Raising the minimum age of marriage would turn the families of these women into criminals – and disproportionately affect the poorer sections of society, mainly comprising of Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi women.

Better access to education and employment opportunities lead to a radical shift in norms and aspirations for girls, and a willingness to invest in them and delay their marriages. It is crucial to address these social customs at their roots in order to drive behavioural change.

  1. Early marriage is not the reason for poor nutrition and health of mothers. 

The Task Force for the Age of Marriage has a stated aim of examining the factors that are responsible for malnourishment and anaemia of mothers, and factors like stunting and underweight among children. 

However, research shows that poverty, and not the age of marriage, is the most important factor governing the poor health of young mothers (even at higher ages of marriage such as 21 years). Poverty also leads to undernutrition, anaemia and neglect of health care which are key to maternal health.

Therefore, improving access to nutrition, free and accessible healthcare and tackling poverty are the most important routes to improve maternal nutrition and health.

There is thus ample research to show that such a move will be seriously detrimental to the rights, health and autonomy of young women in India.

It has been proven that focussing on positive and enabling measures to improve a girl’s quality of life – education, employment, poverty alleviation – has a much higher impact on organically delaying her marriage, so the government should focus on those instead! 

Take action now!


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