As per the idea first publicly mooted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his Independence Day speech in August 2020 and the recommendations made by a 10-member task force led by Jaya Jaitly, the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill was introduced in the Parliament by Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani. The Bill that primarily seeks to increase the marriageable age of women from 18 to 21 years is finally sent to a Parliamentary Committee for scrutiny after opposition parties objected to it. The deliberation on such a topic of legal sanction to the 'marriageable age' certainly has long term socio-cultural repercussions and, therefore, needs more extensive consultations. The rationale given for opposing this Bill by naysayers is dangerous and worrying.
The Statement of Objects in the Bill states that it seeks to amend the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, to address women’s issues holistically. This measure initiated for women’s empowerment, gender equality, greater female labour force participation, etc., has been reduced to a frivolous debate of religious-cultural preferences.
A set of objections coming from the international NGOs in Bharat revolves around the rights of the poor and underprivileged. The argument rests on sufficiency criteria-poverty and lack of access to education are the real issues behind child marriage. As most child marriages are solemnised among the marginalised sections, they will face the wrath of the legal provisions, which is the primary concern of these advocacy groups. Interestingly, the same actors argue against child-marriages while preparing their annual reports on the Child-Mortality and Maternal-Mortality rates. The legal provisions to percolate down in society will take their own time and needs special efforts from all the actors. This does not mean the fundamental criteria of inequality, the differential legal age for marriage, should continue.
Another objection comes from the self-proclaimed champions of secularism like AIMIM Chief Owaisi. The most secular provision of introducing equality of marriageable age across the society, both based on gender and religion, is their fundamental problem. Protection of the so-called 'Personal Laws', defined by the religious patriarchs, is more critical for these groups than gender equality. The irresponsible argument like 'Raising legal age of marriage for women will not benefit aimless, uneducated women' by a lawyer called Sajid, Nuh District Bar Association President, is nothing but a representation of the same parochial and patriarchal attitude. This agenda of 'communal privileges' is against the Constitutional spirit and interests of so-called minorities.
The need for more deliberation is an acceptable argument, though the task force already has interacted with all the possible stakeholders. The bill is sent to the Standing Committee to ponder over the real issues involving motherhood, Maternal Mortality Rate, nutritional levels of women etc. and not the communal and vote-bank considerations. As per the National Family Health Survey (1919-21), 23 per cent of child marriages are taking place in Bharat. In the corresponding period, the Infant Mortality Rate (the number of deaths per 1,000 live births of children under one year of age) is 35. As per the UNESCO report on Maternal Health, pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of mortality among married girls between 15 and 19 years of age. These dimensions should be the key reference points of discussion.
A mere change in the marriage age is not going to increase educational and employment opportunities for girls. Still, it will undoubtedly create a window for change in the gender-biased mindset. Seculars are endangering this possibility of initiating gender inequality due to their communal consideration. Taking the message of Beti Bachao – Beti Padhao forward, we need to sensitise and educate the population in the direction of Beti Padhao – Desh Badhao.