The case of legal marriage age for women in India
21st Dec, 2021
The Union Cabinet passed a proposal to raise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years — the same as men.
Prior to Independence
- The legal marriage age for women in India was first set to 14 years in 1929. It was defined in Child Marriage Restraint Act.
- The same act also set the legal marriage age for men to 18 years.
- After the independence, the law was amended twice i.e., in 1949 and 1978. Both the amendments have increased the marriage age for women.
- In 1949, the age for women was increased to 15 and no changes were made to the marriage age of men.
- The ages for women and men were increased to 18 and 21 respectively in 1978.
What is the current law that defines legal marriage age of women?
- Section 5(iii) of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 sets 18 years as the minimum age for the bride and 21 for the groom.
- The Special Marriage Act, 1954 and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 also prescribe 18 and 21 years as the minimum age of consent for marriage for women and men, respectively.
What are the reasons for early age marriages?
- Socio-cultural factor: The custom of under-age marriage originates from socio-cultural practices with patrilineal households desiring to assimilate women from other families into their households. Early marriage seems preferable due to:
- Ensuring bride’s loyalty: An early age at marriage may ensure a bride’s loyalty to her husband’s family. In turn, she would be bound by these very ties.
- Voiceless: Her low level of education, autonomy, and empowerment may also contribute to shaping her behavior in her marital home.
- Easy molding of character: A broader spousal age-gap would also facilitate this “character molding” of younger brides, who are likely to be more responsive to these practices.
- Sexual and physiological development: In patriarchal societies, marriage is not strictly defined by age. They reflect the social roles expected of girls, and also the timing of sexual and physiological development. These factors may also function as a “social signal” for the readiness for marriage.
- Economic factor: The economic wealth of families, which is often related to socio-cultural status, is a common factor cited in the literature on the predictors of under-age marriage.
- Rural residence: Also, there is geographic heterogeneity in the prevalence of early marriage.
- Religious affair: In India, the practice of child marriage, or Kanya Dan(gift of a daughter, in Sanskrit), and the social importance and familial pride and prestige attributed to it, is believed to originate in Hindu religious texts (Dharmasutras and Smiritis) in 600 AD. These scriptures warned of the social and religious consequences for parents who failed to marry their daughters soon after menarche.
- Other factors include:
- Lack of education
- Less awareness about rights
- Lack of empowerment
- Lack of say in decision-making
- According to a 2017 United Nations report, India was struggling to stop child marriages and improve the health of its mothers.
- As many as 27 percent of Indian girls were married before they turned 18.
Status and Decadal Trends of Child Marriage in India (2020)
- There are 17.26 million married children and adolescents within the age group of 10-19 years in India.
- Girls between 10-19 years of age account for 75 per cent of all the married children in India.
How does early marriage impact the ‘Women’?
- Mortality: These vulnerabilities also result in higher risks of mortality among the children of younger mothers. Many of these pregnancy- and childbirth-related morbidities carry a risk of death.
- Nutritional Status: In India, at first glance, studies find an inconsistent association of maternal marriage age with childhood stunting and underweight.
- Impact on overall childhood: Under-age marriage constrains overall well-being by denying girls their childhood.
- Lower empowerment: Together, lack of education and under-age marriage contribute to lower empowerment for women at the individual level throughout the life-course.
- Low Social Status: Age at marriage is likely to shape women’s empowerment and agency within households and their status in the broader community.
Why so-called ‘social norms’ are unhealthy for women empowerment?
- As long as families are the main providers of social protection for women, social norms are likely to continue to influence the age at which women marry.
- In India, the role and primary identity of a woman in such social contexts are defined by her purpose in life as a “wife, daughter-in-law, and mother.”
- Hence, the principal “option” in life for women may be marriage.
- Social norms will thus continue to shape the age at which this is likely to occur and will also influence other opportunities in life such as education.
Why women’s ‘marriage age’ matters for public health?
- Childbirth complications: Pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading cause of death among girls age 15–19 years globally. Thus, delaying marriage benefits babies as well.
- High risk of infections: Mothers age 10–19 years face higher risks of eclampsia, puerperal endometritis and systemic infections than women age 20–24 years.
- Affected child health: The health consequences of maternal under-age marriage also extend to their children. When the mother is under 20, there's a higher risk of preterm delivery, low birth weight and severe neonatal conditions.
Legal marriage age for women across the globe
In most parts of the world, child marriage was predominant before the industrial revolution. People used to marry their daughters immediately after they reach puberty. Although it has changed, different marriage ages have been set in countries across the globe.
- The lowest legal marriage age for women across the world is in Trinidad and Tobago, an island country in the Caribbean. The marriage age for women in the island country is 18 years, however, Muslims and Hindus have their own marriage act.
- According to the act, the island’s Muslim girls can marry at the age of 12 years whereas Hindu girls can marry after they turn 14.
- The second lowest legal marriage age for women is in Iran i.e., 13 years.
- The highest legal marriage age for women is in China i.e., 20 years.
Can raising marriage age end up backfiring instead?
The idea of a legal fix to postpone girls' marriage might not be a good way to discourage early marriage or improve maternal health and might end up backfiring instead.
- Criminal prosecution of underage couples: In India, parents generally arrange marriages, typically within the same religion or caste. So young couples sometimes run away from home to marry, and if they're over 18, their decision to marry is legally sound and can't be disputed by parents.
- An increase in the legal age for marriage would mean those in the 18-to-21 age bracket who elope to marry would become criminals.
- Lack of personal decision-making: The outcome of the law will render girls voiceless in personal decision-making for longer, with legal backing.
What other measures are required?
- Focus on proper education: Lack of educational opportunities is often what drives parents into marrying their daughters at a young age. Keeping girls in school, especially secondary school, is a key strategy in reducing child marriage.
- Family education and awareness: Educating families, friends, and community about why early marriage is harmful is essential.
- More focus on women’s empowerment rather than marriage
Following the Cabinet’s approval, the Government will introduce an amendment to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, and consequently bring amendments to the Special Marriage Act and personal laws such as the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955.
However, delaying women’s marriage age is not going to happen on papers. It will invariably require changing the norms underpinning the practice of early marriage and also the low status accorded to women in society.