At first sight, the proposal to increase the marriageable age for women from 18 to 21 backed by Niti Aayog Task Force feels like a genuine step in the right direction. A step that would lead to equality and women’s empowerment. We still live in a society where, the dominant view, that man is a breadwinner, and woman is a caretaker at home, persists. This patriarchal mindset needs to slowly dissipate. Such a decision bound by law, could make a positive impact in society and debunk this stereotype.
Though it is clearly a good decision, it will lose its luster, if it is not backed by some solid groundwork aimed at an all-around development of women.
It is possible that after this law, more families will be motivated to send their girls to college bringing forth a small yet positive change in society. Yet, without social awareness around education and the need to educate women, one can only hope for positive changes. The NITI Aaayog terms “empowerment” and “equality” are the reasons behind this proposal. Yet, increasing the marriageable age alone is not enough. One may ask, Where is the discourse on health, employment, and education?
If the legal age of marriage is 21, it may translate as more women in rural India studying further, or becoming independent by learning a skill. Yet, this would only be possible if there are options of employment and skill enhancement in these areas. In its absence and without proper social awareness, this would not reap any results for the underprivileged classes in remote areas.
Another extreme without promotion of education and skill development, could be added misogyny against women and curbing their personal freedom.
Moreover, since the inception of this proposal, a question has perturbed me- What if someone wants to get married?
If a woman in her right mind wants to exercise her right to marriage, such an act would be an added hurdle if the matrimony is against the will of the parents and society.
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CPIM's Brinda Karat, is of the opinion that this will effectively illegalise the self-choice marriages young adult couples make, often breaking caste and community barriers.
The National Family Health Survey tells us that even though the number of child marriages decreased from 27 per cent to 23 per cent in the last five years, the decrease is sharper in urban areas. In rural India, more than every fourth woman in the age group 20-24 was married before she was 18.
Rajya Sabha MP and senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi while reacting to this proposal said,
“ To believe that merely passing laws amounts to substantive and lasting social change is to live in a fool’s paradise. These reform measures must be debated in standing and select committees of Parliament and unless a lot of work goes into reform mindsets, all that will end up is criminalising large chunks of the female population between 18 and 21 years.
However, he does maintain, “The measure may not be bad if accompanied by solid, supportive, nutritional, dietary, educational, and employment reforms for women between 18 and 21 years.
Next, the Government claims that behind its move is its concern for the health status of young women who become mothers early and that raising the marriageable age to 21, will protect their health. An educated, self-aware woman would make a better mother, and so marriageable age of 21 may ensure that.
According to The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020 report, in 2016, nearly 51.4 per cent of women of reproductive age in India were suffering from Anemia. So, what is being done to counter the social ills of malnutrition and maternal and infant mortality: Are more hospitals being constructed? Are funds being granted to ensure the security of mothers in rural India? What steps are being taken towards nutrition? All these would be pertinent questions to ask.
Brinda Karat points out that malnutrition is a serious problem linked to public policy. She makes further telling points. "The Government is cutting down funds on public health, it is privatizing the health sector, it is refusing to expand the system of food security even while prices of food items are increasing - and then, it expresses concern for women's health. Instead of taking responsibility to increase expenditure on health and education, it wants to curb the rights of adult women in the name of reproductive health."
As P. Chidambaram says, such a step requires planning and social awareness before execution. “Such a law should come into force on 1.1.23 or later. This year 2022 should be used for a massive education campaign on the benefits of marrying only after a boy and girl attained the age of 21 years.”
Every policy is suggested after careful planning by the committee, I do not doubt it. Yet, this step needs additional reforms and keeping the marginalized communities on board, where promises and development often reach late.