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Prime minister Narendra Modi on the occasion of 74th Independence Day while addressing the nation, stated that a committee had been set up to reconsider the minimum age for marriage of girls. On June 2, the Union Ministry for Women and Child Development set up this committee as a measure to lower the Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR) and improve nutritional levels, apart from other initiatives.” We have set up a committee to reconsider the minimum age for the marriage of our daughters. We will take an appropriate decision after the committee submits its report,” said PM Narendra Modi. He added that the committee would also look at efforts that can be taken to reduce malnutrition among girls.

Section 5(iii) of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, sets the legal age for marriage of girls was 18 while that for boys is 21. It is expected that the restructuring of the law will raise the minimum age for marriage of girls to 21, i.e. at par with boys. A very relevant question that can come to your mind right now is- Why did the minimum age for marriage of girls and boys differed in the first place? To understand this, you need to know how society is structured and how it works; not in favour of women. Women are surmised to mature earlier than men. They are expected to be responsible, sensible, and nurturing from a very young age.

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In contrast, men are acceptable even in their immature, irresponsible, and aggressive selves at any age. Though the reality is women are punished for their ‘bad’ behaviour from a very young age while men aren’t held accountable for their actions which allows them to be immature adults. This stereotype of women maturing early never benefits them in a positive way like being given the position of power and leadership because of them being reasonable, mature, or responsible. Instead, it takes a wrong turn. The minimum age for marriage of women elucidates that women get mentally grown up to start a family by 18, while men are mentally grown up by 21.

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Need for raising the minimum age for marriage of girls

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An article published in the prestigious journal The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, by Nyugen, Scott, Neupane, Tran and Menon, on May 15, 2019, analysed data on stunting in children and thinness in mothers (as measures of under-nourishment) in the latest round of the National Family Health Survey 4 (2015-16). It mentioned the correlation between early pregnancy, malnutrition, and poverty. It was found that 50% of women in their reproductive age(15 to 49 years) are anaemic. Women experiencing postpartum haemorrhage, hypertensive disorder and sepsis are prevalent.

Adding to this, early marriage causes women not to get sufficient education. Girls are often trained from an early age that their ultimate goal in life is to get a husband. A husband is subjected as a ticket for them to do everything in life. Thus, education takes a backseat in the scenario. They are married at an early age, burdened with the responsibility of marriage, and soon a full-fledged family. Teenage pregnancy is relatively higher in rural areas. According to reports, 1 out of every ten girls between ages 15 to 19 years in rural areas bear children. 27.3% married teenagers bear one child and 4.2% bear two or more children. Another less talked about the subject here is sex education. Well, in India, sex-ed remains to be a taboo. In rural areas, where women are married at an early age, they often have too little or no knowledge about sex. In this case, the concept of consent becomes incomprehensive. It makes us infer that a lot of teenagers become mothers without them wanting to be. Their false consciousness doesn’t let them acknowledge the autonomy over their body and life. At an age when they must enjoy their childhood and live their teenage, they are subjected to domestic violence, family politics, and responsibility of their children.

The decision divided the government

While every decision has its consequences, this too has its own. The change in law seems like a good initiative and would bring about change, but, not everything is all rainbows. The decision has split the government as for some; it sounds like a step to reduce malnutrition, control the population and increase education amongst women; for others, it gets the sums wrong. Some believe that it would help women to exercise legal powers incase of marriage below the age of 21. Others ween that this would increase the number of child marriages as girls getting married between the age group 18-21 would add to the number of child brides. Continuing the argument, it is also evident that premarital sex is just as much of a taboo as sex education in India. Thus, reconsidering the minimum age for marriage of girls is feared to deny unmarried pregnant teenagers to get proper healthcare facilities.

Poonam Muttreja, Executive Director, Population Foundation of India (PFI) offers some solutions for the government strategies.

  • Strengthen on-ground vigilance systems and child protection schemes implemented by the government
  • Ensure the registration of births as well as marriages
  • Invest in social, behavioural communication interventions to address regressive socio-cultural barriers that have an impact on decisions related to marriage and childbirth

Every law is a boon for some and a bane for others. So how are we supposed to give a fair judgement and conclude? One must compute that the bane isn’t dark enough to overpower the boon. It counts for the wrong decision. An industry expert who wished to stay anonymous said, “Any task force recommendation is welcome, but the focus should be on improving the current systems like enforcing the marriage limit rather than raising it further.”

Also read: Benevolent Sexism

Image Credits: India Today

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