The Right Age for Marriage: Should the State Decide?

The Right Age for Marriage: Should the State Decide?

When I first read about the proposal that sought to increase the age of marriage for women to 21, I experienced a certain level of excitement. It appeared to be an exponentially progressive move by the state apparatus in a bid to empower women—seemingly in an attempt to promote gender equality. Delaying the age of marriage for women by three years, meant equalising the legal age of marriage with that of men. How could this then not be a step towards gender equality?

Interestingly, after having done some research on the topic, I realised that increasing the age of marriage is not really a step ahead on the ladder of intersectional Indian feminism. Rather other problematic questions that surround the periphery of this issue require greater attention. Taking this into account, these debates have splintered into two schools of thought—one that supports the move and the other that does not see it as a priority in the process of affirmative action.

To take forward this proposition, a Task Force has been set up by the government that seeks to increase the legal  age of marriage for girls in the country. According to the clauses in the memorandum of the Task Force, the age of marriage for women needs to be increased for health, education, demographic purposes and to promote gender equality. However, several reports, recommendations and opinion editorials from reputed media houses have sought to challenge this move by the government by laying down arguments that logically highlight the need to look at other issues, instead of focusing on simply a change in law.

According to a report by a collective of feminist organisations, that critiques the ideas of the Task Force, there are certain loopholes in the proposition that do not take into account other implications. The report discusses how early marriage is simply a consequence of dropping out of school and not its cause—the aim here should be to make ground level access to education more widespread, quality-driven and gender inclusive.

A second critique offered by the report deals with the idea that maternal mortality will not be curbed by simply increasing the age of marriage. Increased maternal mortality rates are a result of poverty, limited access to resources and wages that collectively contribute to poor health for women. Until the vicious cycle of poverty is not done away with, maternal mortality rates cannot be controlled.

According to the recommendations made by Oxfam India, most child marriages take place in the rural areas and increasing the age of marriage will not prevent child/adolescent marriages. The focus should instead be on providing women and girls proper access to sexual and reproductive health care services, abortion care and pre-natal care that are seemingly taken away from girls who bear children outside of ‘wedlock’. The increase in marriage age law will simply exacerbate this non-access to reproductive health care services by criminalising women who are not  of “legal age”.

The recommendations made by Oxfam India and those made by other feminist  organisations intersect at a point that discusses how increasing the age of marriage only criminalises the sexual unions/marriages between consenting adults who are below the ‘prescribed’ age. To me this argument made maximum sense. This attempt at criminalisation is severely patriarchal and seeks to infringe upon private spaces by dragging the personal into the public. This move completely negates the existence of pre-marital consensual sex/will to marry between two consenting people. This can be used as a tool by families and parents who do not support said unions due to caste/class/economic background differences.

This is also a clear endeavour by the State to control the sexuality of women as the idea of family ‘honour’ is tied to their bodies. By assuming that sexual activity is supposed to be a post-marital prerogative, and thus will be delayed by delaying the age of marriage is highly problematic and entrusts more power in the hands of those who see themselves as the upholders of the patriarchal discourse by exercising social sanction that has been duly accorded to them. The parameters of ‘health’, ‘reproductive safety’ and ‘demography’ are just jargon-driven clauses adopted by the State to exercise greater control over and criminalise sexual activity by two consenting people. The delay signifies an emphasis on ‘purity’ and prolonged control over ‘virginity’ of women and girls. This delay is also aimed at the non-provision of sexual and reproductive health care and rights to women who are impregnated outside of ‘wedlock’ in a bid to ostracise and stigmatise them for engaging in sexual activity outside the socially sanctioned bonds of marriage.

As a young feminist, my one learning from this entire issue is that  we are constantly learning and evolving, in the ways in which we view the world. Our ideas and perspectives  are not frozen in time and are often thawed by the heat of change and alternative understandings of the functioning of the social fabric. Across social media, we see a riot of opinions and ideas being aggressively imposed on anyone who shares a different view and that in itself goes to show how rigid and averse to evolution ideologies have become. Changing one’s opinions after logically hearing arguments for or against issues should be normalised. For someone like me, who initially believed that increasing the age of marriage for girls in India is a seemingly ‘forward’ move, I realised that it is in reality, bridled with severe undertones of patriarchy, deflection of root causes and a superfluous understanding of empowerment.

And I sincerely hope that others too realise the same. After all, all that glitters is not gold.  

Janhavii Sharma is interning with Oxfam India

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