There are several senses in which the health of women and girls can be considered the basic indicators for the health of a society. Precisely because of gender discrimination, the health conditions of females generally tend to lag behind those of males. Therefore an absolute improvement in these conditions is a reasonable indicator that the overall health conditions of that society are also getting better.
India had the third fastest growing economy in the Asian region after China and Vietnam. Even in a continuing global crisis, it is generally perceived as an emerging economic powerhouse. On the other hand, we all know that Newly married women and girls are often under immense societal pressure to have a child due to social norms around proving fertility. In addition, low levels of knowledge and information regarding sexual and reproductive health result in early and unplanned pregnancies. Girls who are married at an early age often lack marital agency and cannot share their preferences and needs with their partners, particularly when it comes to negotiating safe sexual practices and using family planning methods.
In June 2020, the Ministry for Women and Child Development set up a task force to look into the correlation between the age of marriage with issues of women's nutrition, the prevalence of anaemia, Infant Mortality Rate (IMR), Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR) and other social indices. The Jaya Jaitly committee was to look at the feasibility of increasing the age of marriage and its implication on women and child health, and how to increase access to education for women. The committee has recommended the age of marriage be increased to 21 years based on feedback they received from young adults from 16 universities across the country. So, the Central Government is planning to bring a bill to increase the minimum legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21, people familiar with developments said, underlining a far-reaching decision that will require modification in faith-based personal laws dealing with marriage and inheritance.
During his address to the nation on India's 74th Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the Centre has set up a committee to reconsider the minimum age of marriage for women. "We have set up a committee to reconsider the minimum age of marriage for girls. The Centre will decide after the committee submits its report," he said from the ramparts of the Red Fort. As indicated while presenting the Union Budget, the Ministry of Women and Child Development in June set up a 10-member task force, headed by Jaya Jaitly, to examine the matters related to motherhood's age and lower maternal mortality rate".
India has the largest number of girls who marry below 18. Therefore, raising the age of marriage to 21 could be seen as a step towards gender equality that addresses the health problems of young mothers and their infants
The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021' proposes to amend 'The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 (PCMA)' for making the age of marriage equality at 21 years for both males and females, which is presently 21 years for males and 18 years for females and consequential amendments in laws relating to the age of marriage, i.e. 'the Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872'; 'the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, 1936'; 'the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937'; 'the Special Marriage Act, 1954'; 'the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955'; and 'the Foreign Marriage Act, 1969'. Also, the laws, namely 'the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, 1956'; and 'Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act, 1956', pertain to this context.
Early marriage and consequent early pregnancies also have awful impacts on the nutritional levels of mothers, their children and their overall health and mental well-being. It also impacts the infant mortality rate and maternal mortality rate, and the empowerment of women who are cut off from access to education and livelihood after an early marriage. The recently released National Family Health Survey (NFHS) revealed that child marriage has come down marginally from 27 per cent in 2015-16 to 23 per cent in 2019-20 in the country, but the government has been pushing to bring this down further. Another hand, the growing divide between economic growth and women's health outcomes in countries such as India is not inevitable: the experience of other Asian countries shows that a more positive synergy can be created, with health spending not just valued for its own sake, but as an essential element in an overall macroeconomic and growth framework oriented to better conditions of human life rather than just GDP expansion.
After the announcement of the decision, there were speculations that the burden of this decision would fall only on Hindus since there was no clarity on whether personal laws would be amended. It was unclear if any change to Muslim Personal Law would be made to amend the minimum age of marriage for women, which is currently 15 years. For all other personal laws in India and the special marriage act, the minimum age of the bride is 18 years while the same for the groom is 21 years.
The speculation was that the Muslim personal law would give the community the right to marry their girls at 15. Hindus would follow the law, affecting the fertility rate and screwing the demography further. We know only too well that India is usually near the bottom of the international rankings on gender indicators. India also has the largest absolute number of girls who marry below 18. Therefore, raising the age of marriage to 21 could be seen as a step towards gender equality that addresses the health problems of young mothers and their infants. But unfortunately, this reasoning is both unsound and unwise. When you can't do the things that desperately need to be done, do something else that you can do easily, even if it does not need doing.
At a time when the country is facing its worst overall crisis since Independence, the Government has set up a special task force to advise it on the issue of raising the age of marriage for girls from 18 to 21 years. But this answer rests on a partial truth that is dangerously misleading. Our health indicators on young mothers and their infants are as bad because poor and therefore more malnourished women marry at younger ages than their wealthier counterparts. If poor women continue to remain poor and malnourished, raising their age of marriage by a few years will change very little. Much of the same problems will recur when they marry at 21 years. Carefully disaggregated statistical analyses confirm this fact.