Addressing Early Marriages in India (Oxfam India-SAWM Webinar)

Addressing Early Marriages in India (Oxfam India-SAWM Webinar)

The central government set up a Task Force this year and is considering increasing the age of marriage for girls from 18 to 21 in a bid to curtail early marriages and reduce maternal mortality. The conundrum however, remains that simply by increasing the minimum age of marriage, early marriages will not reduce. An organic shift in the age of marriage should perhaps be targeted by  improving levels of education for girls, eradication of poverty and by providing widespread access to sexual and reproductive health services to women and girls across the country. Oxfam India, in association with South Asian Women in Media, held a webinar on December 3rd 2020 to discuss the issue of early marriages in India with respect to the recent debates and proposed changes in the minimum age of marriage.

The inaugural address was given by Amita Pitre, Lead Specialist, Oxfam India where she set the context of the discussion by highlighting the details of the proposal to increase the age of marriage for girls. She deliberated whether increasing the minimum age of marriage was a preferable choice to delaying marriage for girls, or whether the focus should be on increasing educational opportunities and reducing poverty, as they were directly linked to the issue of early marriages in the country.

The  session was moderated by Uma Sudhir, Executive Editor, NDTV, and a member of SAWM.

Watch the webinar here 

Professor Mary E John, Centre for Women’s Development Studies began the discussion by establishing a historical context for understanding the debates around child and early marriages in India. She discussed how ‘compulsory marriage’ which at the core of the social fabric of India was exploitative – both physically and sexually – as it sought to exercise patriarchal control over women’s freedom and mobility. She called early marriages the “underbelly” of compulsory marriage that diverted attention away from education. “Are women today more empowered than the women who entered into early marriages all those years ago?” she asked. To her, education and the eradication of poverty were the two most important vectors to increase the age of marriage for girls, rather than the enactment of a law. John also critiqued the maternal mortality rate argument offered by lawmakers by highlighting how women who are married at 18 are biologically healthy enough to bear children, rendering the argument void. “If a woman is anaemic and is therefore unable to bear children at an early age, her anaemia is unlikely to magically vanish once she turns 21” was John’s response to the maternal mortality rate argument. Increasing the minimum legal age of marriage then, isn’t an appropriate solution to reducing the maternal mortality rate.

Shanta Sinha, Senior Child Rights Advocate and Padma Shri Awardee staunchly critiqued marriage as she saw it as an institution of abuse and exploitation. To her, the government’s consideration of this policy change came out of nowhere and was simply an agenda driven tactic that diverted attention from other issues of structural importance. She blamed the state for being inefficient by not being able to provide higher and secondary education to girls along with proper infrastructure and transportation. She further criticised the logic of the “safety” reason that is often used by families to prevent girls from accessing education by exercising control over their mobility.

Madhu Mehra, Partners for Law and Development opened her argument with an interesting point—the idea of individual agency and choice. Taking the example of the governmental move being spoken about, she highlighted how the voices of the social group that it directly impacted, in this case girls from ages 18-21, were not being taken into account. According to her, acknowledging the voices of young people is extremely important while drafting laws or exercising state powers. The lawmakers have a prejudiced idea of certain social groups, compelling the state to blindly take decisions for said group under the assumed pretext that they need to be “rescued”.

Patricia Mukhim, South Asian Women in Media, The Shillong Times, Padma Shri Awardee discussed that there should be an attempt to move away from marriage in Indian society. There is an unhealthy emphasis on marriage in the country that especially consumes women and girls thanks to patriarchy. She emphasised the need to look at a comprehensive policy that targets all kinds of issues relating to women empowerment.

From the discussion it was clear that policy experts, journalists, academics and civil society members disagreed with the government’s consideration to increase the minimum age of marriage for girls from 18 to 21 and instead unanimously emphasised the need to look at issues of structural importance.

The webinar was held by Oxfam India in association with South Asian Women in Media on Wednesday, December 3rd 2020, 11:00 am-12:30 pm IST. 

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