The Union Government’s proposed Prohibition of Child Marriage Amendment Bill, 2021which seeks to raise the marriage age of girls to 21, has been widely referred to the select committee to iron out the political differences on the Bill.
The Bill amended the definition of the child to mean “a male or a female who has not completed 21 years of age”. The Bill also overrides the personal laws of all religions and the special marriage Act, 1954. Some sceptics and experts have their opposition to the proposed increase in the age for marriage, and they have their arguments. But certainly, the Bill is a progressive one and aimed at helping the girls avoid child marriage and into the struggle of domestic duties at a very young age
In general, Indian society opposes the practice of child marriages despite many such marriages happening in certain states and more so in a few selective communities that are tradition-bound.
Religious beliefs are also playing a role in child marriages. The minimum age for marriage was fixed at 18 for girls and 21 for boys by a similar act of Parliament. The current bill is only an improvement over the existing Act, and as such, there is nothing to object to except for political and religious chauvinistic reasons.
Medical Experts welcomed the Bill
The social, medical and legal experts are for the bill. The medical and mental health experts welcomed the biological and psychological decisions. The sociologists feel it is a good move as the girls can study up to graduation and may even get financial independence before getting married. They also believe that the current increase in marriage can eliminate child marriage as the girls have the weapon of law to complain about the contemplated child marriage.
The educated girls can turn independent in their marriage decision and help other lesser privileged girls know the law and protect themselves from early marriages. The girl at 21 is better aware of her bodily changes, physical needs and mentally well prepared for marriage and childbearing.
Law and Social Change
Laws alone may not change society’s desired change, but a new law is always a beginner of societal change. The abolition of the Dowry Act may not have eliminated the demand for dowry but certainly made people less vocal in demanding dowry. Educated people no longer have dowry centric marriages but are going for self-satisfied weddings. There is also certain misuse of some Acts, despite the excellent intention of making those laws. Section 498 (A) and SC/ST atrocities prevention Act are the two well-known examples where the misuse is reportedly on the high side.
Samajwadi Party Leaders Go Berserk
After the Central Government approved a proposal to raise the legal age of marriage of women from 18 years to 21 years, Samajwadi Party leader Shafiqur Rahman Barq came up with a bizarre remark saying that the decision to raise the marriageable age of girls to 21 years would give the girl’s an excuse to do ‘awargi’ (to indulge in reckless, immoral behaviour).
“I don’t think this is the right step. Increasing the minimum marriageable age of women will deteriorate the situation. 18 years was perfect, and the age bar was existent for a long time. Now, it will provide more scope for recklessness”, said Shafiqur Rahman Barq.
Another Samajwadi Party leader and Lok Sabha MP ST Hasan went a step ahead and opined that girls should be married when they attain the age of fertility, even if it is at the tender age of sixteen.
“Girls should be married when they attain the age of fertility. There is nothing wrong if a mature girl is married at 16. If she can vote at the age of 18, why can’t she marry?” said the SP MP ST Hasan.
Now let us consider the arguments against the bill. The senior advocate Indira Jaisingh in her tweet, said, “How patronising and patriarchal to call someone over the age of 18 a child, ready and fit to vote but not to marry, is this constitutional morality”. In many Acts, it is also true that the law recognised 18 years as the critical age. It gave voting right at 18, and it gave the right to enter into a contract at the age of 18, the POCSO recognised the child as someone under the age of 18, even juvenile offender Act, Right of Children Act etc. have all given 18 years of age as a critical one. Based on those Acts, some legal experts doubt the increasing the age exclusively for marriage.
However, the Act, which is in vogue, currently has fixed for boys 21 years as the minimum age for marriage, and no expert ever challenged that. So how can a girl get harmed if 21 is fixed for her marriage? In fact, many women organisations were fighting for gender parity. They even approached the Supreme Court for gender neutrality in commissioned officers in the military and combat operations duty for females on par with men. The Sabarimala case is all about gender parity only, and Supreme Court upheld that. So the women lawyers and activists can’t oppose the gender parity brought in through the latest bill.
Personal Laws Collide Constitution
The question of personal laws clashing with the current bill is redundant as India is constitutionally a secular one, and each Indian should be governed by the common law irrespective of his religious beliefs. The term minority-majority has no relevance in secular India. All should be made to know first as Indians and then only other identities. No one is deprived of their rights by increasing the minimum age for marriage. When it was not deprived of any right when the earlier Act was done for 18 years, then 21 years fixation is also a perfectly right one.
By any stretch of argument, the bill is a progressive step. The select committee to which the Child Marriage Amendment Bill, 2021 is referred may make some amendments in the implementation but certainly will not reject it.