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Key Takeaways

  • Marriageable age is the standard or minimum age at which a person is legally entitled to marry, subject to familial, religious, or other kinds of societal consent.
  • The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006 specifies a minimum marriage age of 21 years for males and 18 years for females.
  • In December 2021, a proposal to alter the 2006 Act was introduced in Lok Sabha.

Introduction

Marriageable age is the standard or minimum age at which a person is legally entitled to marry, subject to familial, religious, or other kinds of societal consent. Age and other marriage conditions vary by jurisdiction, however, the greater part of jurisdictions set the marriage age at the age of majority. The law establishes a minimum marriage age in order to effectively restrict child marriages and protect minors from abuse. Personal laws governing marriage in many religions have their criteria, which typically mirror custom. 

Until recently, the minimum marriageable age for girls was lower than for males in many jurisdictions, based on the assumption that females mature at a younger age than males. Some believed this policy to be discriminatory, hence the marriageable age for females has been raised to match that of males in numerous nations. 

According to experts, raising the legal age of marriage is an indirect attempt to alleviate other gender inequities; nevertheless, there are competing viewpoints to this notion. On gender metrics, India is typically towards the bottom of global rankings. It also ranks among the world's lowest in terms of women's empowerment, with the country having the highest absolute number of females marrying before the age of 18.

The minimum marriage age, particularly for women, has always been a contentious subject in India. The law has evolved despite strong opposition from religious and social conservatives. has been a stumbling hurdle for women in India from time immemorial. While it was once pervasive throughout the country, official regulations and actions were able to repress it to some extent and sweep it under the rug, but it is still prevalent. It continues under the guise of a social marriage, which is only recognized when the girl reaches the age of 18.

Provisions in Force 

In the nineteenth century, the marriageable age for women was ten years, rising to fifteen years in 1949. India has been at the forefront of the fight against child marriage since 1929 when the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 rendered child marriage (under the age of 14 for females and 18 for boys) illegal. The CMRA was amended in 1978 to raise the marriageable age for girls to 18 years old. The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006 superseded the 1929 Act, with the same minimum age limitations and the theme "abolish child marriage." Although the anti-child marriage laws were passed 44 years ago, the archaic practice persists in certain regions of the country. 

The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006 specifies a minimum marriage age of 21 years for males and 18 years for females. Section 5(iii) of the of 1955 establishes a minimum age of 18 years for the bride and 21 years for the groom who follows Hinduism. The marriage of a minor who has reached puberty is deemed permissible in Islam.

The Special Marriage Act of 1954 also specifies the minimum age of consent for marriage for women and men as 18 and 21 years, respectively. These laws are likely to be altered in order for the new era of marriage laws to be enacted.

Rationale behind Raising the Minimum Age

The Ministry of Women and Child Development formed the task group to re-examine the age of marriage and its relationship with health and social indicators such as newborn mortality, matfor, and nutritional levels among women and infaThe rationalerding to reports, the suggestion is motivated more by women's empowerment and gender parity than population management (India's overall fertility rate is already dropping). According to the committee, for the law to be successful, access to education and livelihood must be improved concurrently.It provides a fair chance for women by allowing them more time to complete their education, gain work, mature psychologically before marriage, and achieve gender parity.

Early marriage increases the risk of abusive conduct in the home. According to the International Council of Research on Women (ICRW), women who are less educated, married, and between the ages of 15 and 19gain more lmaturesto have experienced physical violence in the home than educated women. One probable reason behind this is that there is an abnormality between the pair, which consists of young women and elderly males.

Women's reduced labour-force involvement can be attributed to marriage, domestic duties and a lack of education that has resulted out of them. Raising the legal marriage age is an indirect opportunity to rectify other gender disparities, such as girls being taken out of school for marriage; the healabor-forcences from pregnancies, such as maternal mortality, that ea,ly marriage involves; girls' lack of preparation to raise children if they are themselves young, and so on. Raising the marriage age for women might also help reduce the number of adolescent pregnancies.

Opposition towards Raising the Minimum Age

Opposers of this notion state that what truly matters should be that girls are not coerced into early marriages, whether the age of marriage is 18 or 21. Marriages should also not be used to justify women and ultimately motherhood. When underlying issues such as concern for daughter's safety, public stigma, fear of inter-caste/community engagement, poverty, low levels of education, societal pressure, rise in dowry demand, and strain to feed one more member are addressed, early weddings can be avoided. Unfortunately, altering a girl's marriage age from 18 to 21 does not alleviate any of these issues.

Child and women's rights advocates, as well as population and family planning professionals, have been opposed to raising the marriage age for women, arguing that such legislation would force a huge percentage of the population into illegal marriages. They claim that the law would be coercive and will disproportionately affect marginalised populations like the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, rendering them lawbreakers.

It is said that the law may backfire since it does not address the main causes of early marriage, such as poverty, patriarchal views, and a lack of access to education, and there is concern that if these basic issues are not addressed, an age shift may do more damage than good. The new legislation will criminalise many women whose households marry them off at a young age. Some female activists argue that the measure is a mere gesture that will not empower women. They argue that the government should prioritise enhancing access to educational institutions, particularly in the country's vast rural areas, boosting nutrition and health care, and ensuring women's safety and security.

Future Prospects

In December 2021, a proposal to alter the 2006 Act was introduced in Lok Sabha. It was referred to D. Vinay P. Sahasrabuddhe's Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education, Women, Children, Youth, and Sports (EWCY&S). The Bill seeks to modify the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, to strengthen its applicability with respect to marriage; equalize the marriageable age for men and women; ban child marriage; make consequential adjustments to other marriage-related legislation; and other related topics. Until the new Amendment is ratified, India will be governed by the PCMA.

The committee formed by the WCD Ministry, based on feedback from young adults around the country, suggested raising the marriage age to 21 years. Over 15 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were also involved in reaching out to young adults in remote locations and marginalised populations. The committee also requested that the government investigate improving females' access to schools and universities, including transportation to these institutions from remote places. Skill and business training, as well as sex education in schools, have also been proposed.

According to the committee, these deliverables must come first since the law would be ineffective until they are implemented and women are empowered. The committee also suggested that a huge public awareness campaign be launched to raise knowledge of the marriage age hike and to foster societal acceptance of the new rule, which they believe would be considerably more successful than coercive methods.

Conclusion

It is critical to address gender inequality and discrimination and to put in place necessary measures to safeguard the health, welfare, and development of our women and girls, as well as to assure equal status and opportunity for them. There are several legislations in existence that limit the minimum age for marriage at the moment, yet child marriage is still prevalent in our society due to a lack of execution. The government has also been active in revising the minimum marriage age.

The task group's formation is a chance to define the action to eliminate early and forced marriages, which are a severe hindrance to girls' and women's health and well-being. Providing women with the chance to complete their education and become financially independent. However, the material or substantial benefits of an act raising the minimum age for women is debatable. Rather,holistic empowerment including empowering women to make educated decisions, offering access to facilities, allowing them to exercise greater agency in their family lives, and enabling possibilities for well-paid work is the need of the hour. Education streamlines the process of achieving desired empowerment, making it more sustainable while also tackling the poverty cycle, generational malnutrition, and early marriage. And to that end, concerted efforts should be made to retain girls in school for extended periods and enable them to finish further education or vocational training.


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