Legal Reforms to Increase Age of Motherhood — Will It Work?

Legal Reforms to Increase Age of Motherhood — Will It Work?

According to the report by UNICEF[1], one in three of the world’s child brides live in India. Despite the fact that fewer girls are marrying before 15 years, the rates of marriage have increased for girls between 15-18 years. This indicates that though the age of marriage has increased, there is not much change in the overall attitude & beliefs about the rights and opportunities of young girls. Marriage and pregnancy of girls under 18 years is a matter of concern as it has harmful physical, social, psychological consequences on girls and their children. Adolescent girls are neither physically nor psychologically ready to bear children and are therefore, more likely to face pregnancy-related complications. Babies of mothers younger than 18 years tend to be born premature, have low body weight and are more likely to die in the first year of life. However, it must be borne in mind that higher risks in pregnancy and delivery among women is not merely a question of age but status of nutrition including levels of anaemia, awareness, schooling, access to healthcare including contraception, ante and post-natal care and safe deliveries, access to transportation and overall access to resources play an important part in safe motherhood.

Taking into account the multiple factors contributing to poor maternal health outcomes, the Government of India has recently created a task force to examine the matter pertaining to age of motherhood. The task force will be examining the proposition to raising the age of marriage of girls to 21 years from 18 years, thereby amending the Child Marriage legislation.

However, government efforts in raising of age of marriage of girls to 21 years, especially in the current COVID-19 context is concerning due to the following reasons.

  • Despite Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, young girls were married off below 18 years by the parents due to reasons of poverty, lack of awareness of the law, and negative social norms resulting in under-valuing girls. With a poor track record of implementing the existing legislation, the proposition for a legal amendment in raising the age of marriage for girls may not lead to desirable outcomes.
  • Child marriage is predominantly a rural phenomenon in India. In the current context of COVID-19, poor families have lost their livelihoods, migrants have returned back to their villages and are striving hard to meet both ends. Poverty and deprivation are often associated with early marriages. Therefore taking care of basic conditions of living including food security and a minimum income may be more helpful in averting early marriages instead of increase in age of marriage. The minimum age of marriage varies across countries but 18 years is internationally recognised and acknowledged as adequate for the necessary physical and emotional maturity required for maternal health. Within this backdrop there is no reason for raising the age of marriage for girls to 21 years on biological or health grounds. Rather attention to the factors mentioned above from nutrition and food security to better access to care, education and poverty alleviation will be more effective for the given goals.
  • Recently some states have made a move to make marriages under the age of 18 years null and void e.g. Karnataka. Other states are also planning to enforce the PCMA more strictly. This adds a layer of complexity to the issue. There is a possibility that underage marriages which are essentially social issues are being dealt with legal solutions, which have been largely unsuccessful. Further raising of age of consent will only add a layer of legal strategy, while we are requiring to undertake more social strategies for the concern of underage marriages.
  • We are already grappling with the impact of criminalisation of sexuality under 18 years on account of laws such as POCSO, 2012 and Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013 both relatively new laws. Nearly 30% of court cases under the POCSO and the rape law are of consenting youth in a sexual relationship. Most of these cases are filed by the parents because they do not approve of the relationships of their children. This is an unintended consequence of these recent laws. Consenting underage sexuality is also a complex issue which needs again, not criminal but social strategies. Hence we must consider all the unintended consequences which newer laws lead to. Raising of age of marriage will again place more power in the hands of parents, caste panchayats and community leaders and reduce the autonomy of young people in controlling the sexuality of young people which may not be necessary.  
  • Another unintended consequence of raising age of marriage and strict enforcement of the law, can place the pregnancies which result in these marriages considered outside the framework of marriage and law. There are anecdotal reports from the ground where girls have been forced to hide pregnancy, forego ante natal care and institutional deliveries since such pregnancies are considered outside of legal marriages. It further undermines young people’s right to access healthcare. Overall, raising the age of marriage for girls to 21 years is a very disempowering and protectionist approach. It prevents girls from taking independent decisions on their life choices and infantalises them. Girls who exercise their autonomy may have to go through natal family violence and tyranny of caste leaders and other community gatekeepers, especially if the law itself makes their right to choose a partner at 18 years illegal.

We urge the Government of India to not consider the option of raising the age of marriage of girls.

Instead of legal amendments, we propose multi-sectoral policy recommendations for enhancing maternal health outcomes. 

  • Social schemes to support the education, nutrition and health of girls
  • Strengthen the Adolescent Reproductive and Sexual Health Programme
  • Ensure free access to contraception, maternal health services and other sexual and reproductive health services
  • Including life skills development and sex education in the school curriculums, taking special care to include girls.
  • Strengthening schemes on vocational training and employment for enhancing rural livelihoods, again making sure that women can take part equally in these schemes
  • Initiating transformative financing processes across line departments for achieving positive maternal health outcomes

[1] https://data.unicef.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Child-Marriage_India_for-digital_0215.pdf

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