The survey conducted before passing the bill had over 70 per cent of students, who are the primary stakeholders and whose decision matters the most favoured raising the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years and about 67 per cent thought the ideal age to get married was between 26 and 30 years. The survey had students from across socio-economic classes, with 37 per cent belonging to the lower-middle-class (income Rs 70,000 to Rs 2,70,000 per annum), 35 per cent to upper-middle-class ( Rs 2,70,001 to 8,45,000 per annum) and remaining above the income limit.
The expert panel believe this bill will be about women welfare and empowerment. Besides, it's a religion-neutral issue and looked at from the prism of the welfare of girls as individuals of the society.
Previous Acts and Amendments
The first Child Marriage Restraint Act was passed on September 28, 1929, in the Imperial Legislative Council of India, which fixed the marriage age for girls at 14 years and boys at 18 years. The first amendment after India's independence was made in 1949. The 1929 Act was amended to 15 years as the age of marriage for girls. The second amendment was made in 1978 to increase the marriageable age to 18 for girls and 21 for boys.
However, this differentiation in the marriageable age of girls and boys and keeping the legal age for marriage of girls at 18 years has never helped solve many of the problems faced by the present generation of young girls. Most interventions made to date had smaller scopes, and bringing in amendments by the government is a must necessity now.
In this 21st century, girls have become aware of their rights and freedom; however, the law often enables parents and guardians of girls to marry them off at the age of 18 to 20 while the girl is still undergoing her education. Nearly 15-16 per cent of girls in the age group of 18-20 are currently married. Estimates suggest that at least 1.5 million girls under 18 get married in India each year, which makes it home to the largest number of child brides in the world – accounting for a third of the global total.
According to a UNICEF study, due to the present legal marriageable age being 18 years, the prevalence of girls getting married before age 18 has declined to 27 per cent from 47 per cent between 2005-2006 and 2015-2016, which is a good indication that legalising the marriageable age to 21 will further bring it down.
On the girl child education front, before the pandemic, there was a welcome trend in the gradual increase in the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) for women in higher education — from 19.8 per cent in 2012-13 to 27.3 per cent in 2019-20. However, it is seen that as girls progress from primary to secondary to tertiary school levels, their numbers decrease by the year. There is a gradual descent and resultant paucity of women who are even eligible to college.
One law= Multiple solutions
Making the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill 2021 a law will solve multiple exiting challenges, such as gender inequality, underage marriage, incomplete education of girl child, high drop –out of girl child from high school education, early pregnancies, malnutrition and malnourished babies, the birth of premature unhealthy babies to young mothers, multiple pregnancies at a young age and health issues of young girls, child widows and their related social and economic issues, negative social norms, economic poverty, financial deprivation, etc.
There will be a direct correlation between increasing the marriageable age of girls to 21 and related benefits:
- Increased rates of girls' education
- Increased literacy of mothers
- Better employment and engaging opportunity
- Equal contributor to the family.
- Socially, economically and financially empowered women
The bill, once it becomes a law, will help to bring educational equality amongst both girls and boys, equalise the age of marriage for both sexes (as per existing law, the marriageable age is 21 for males and 18 for females.), will increase the number of women completing their education up to graduation.
It is universally accepted that a child is someone who's under the age of 18, meaning that till the age of 18, a female is not matured and considered a girl child, so raising the marriage age to 21 helps a girl to have enough time, of a three years period, to be mentally strong and wise to constitute a frame of mind to decide on her future course of life.
It will also help a 21-year girl to independently decide on their future education, career, financial independence/dependence, marriage, and choice of partner. Besides, it will directly help to bring down the cases of forceful marriage, child marriage, reduce the count of uneducated women in India.
Child Marriage and Poverty
Child marriage negatively affects the Indian economy and can lead to an intergenerational cycle of poverty. As a result of norms assigning lower value to girls, as compared to boys, girls are perceived to have no alternative role other than to get married. And are expected to help with domestic chores and undertake household responsibilities in preparation for their marriage. But girls and boys married as children most often lack the skills, knowledge and job prospects needed to lift their families out of poverty and contribute to their country's social and economic growth. Early marriage leads girls to have children earlier and more children over their lifetime, increasing the economic burden on the household. Evidence shows that critical game-changers for adolescent girls' empowerment include postponing marriage beyond the legal age, improving their health and nutritional status, supporting girls to transition to secondary school, and helping them develop marketable skills so that they can realise their economic potential and transition into healthy, productive and empowered adults.
Social Transformation and Private Rate of Return
Women can be the pivot to bring about critical and lasting social transformation as a society. According to NITI Aayog's study, 'the global average for the private rate of return (the increase in an individual's earnings) with just one extra year of schooling is about 9 per cent, while the social returns of an extra year of school are even higher – above 10 per cent at the secondary and higher education levels as per a decennial World Bank review. Interestingly, the private returns for women in higher education are much higher than for men – 11 to 17 per cent as per different estimates. For their own empowerment, as well as for society at large, we must bring more and more women within the ambit of higher education.'In conclusion, what needs an empathetic viewpoint is to see the marriageable age of girls from a wider perspective, through the eyes of young girls themselves and their choices, of their entire lifecycle, she as an independent individual, her role post marriage as a matured companion/partner, socially confident wife, an emotionally strong mother to her children, as a changemaker to her family.