NEW DELHI: In a hint that government is considering revising upward the legal age of marriage for girls which is currently 18 years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Saturday a decision on “what should be the right age of marriage for girls” would be taken as soon as a committee set-up to study the issue submits its report. “To end malnutrition among girls, to assess what should be the age of marriage, we have set-up a committee,” the PM said.
As of now, while the legal age of marriage in India is 18 years for girls, it is 21 for boys. Anaemia and malnutrition are common afflictions in underage mothers and relate to marriages taking place in the 16-18 age group. That proportion, though declining, is significant even now.
The task force headed by social activist Jaya Jaitly was set-up in June as a follow-up to the announcement made by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman in the Union budget for 2020-21 where she stated, “women’s age of marriage was increased from 15 to 18 years in 1978, by amending the erstwhile Sharda Act of 1929. As India progresses further, opportunities open up for women to pursue higher education and careers. There are imperatives of lowering maternal mortality ratio (MMR) as well as improvement of nutrition levels. The entire issue about the age of a girl entering motherhood needs to be seen in this light.”
The task force has the mandate to examine matters pertaining to the age of motherhood, imperatives of lowering maternal mortality rate, improvement of nutritional levels and related issues. It has to also suggest suitable legislations or amendments in existing laws and a detailed rollout plan with timelines to implement these recommendations. TOI has learnt that the task force which was supposed to give its report till July 31, is yet to submit it to the government.
The 2001 census said, “In the age group of 15-49 years — the prime child bearing age group — 81.4% of women are married. This percentage is high due to lower female age at marriage in many parts of the country.”
The age of marriage has been a point of debate for long. The National Human Rights Commission too has raised the need for uniform age for marriage for both men and women from time to time. In 140 countries the age of marriage is 18 for both men and women. Even the Law Commission in a consultative paper on family laws in 2018 suggested that the legal age for marriage for both men and women across religions should be recognized at 18 years, the universal age for majority. It does not, however, seem likely that the male age of marriage will be reduced given the government’s focus on dealing with malnutrition in underage and young brides.
Settling a very critical issue pertaining to under age marriages, the Supreme Court in 2017 had ruled that “sexual intercourse with a minor wife amounts to rape, as under no circumstances can a child below 18 years give consent, express or implied, for sexual intercourse”. However, the government’s proposal to bring the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act in synchronisation with the judgement to make child marriages “void ab initio” (invalid at the outset) is yet to take the shape of a decision.
An analysis of child marriage and teenage pregnancies shared by National Commission for Protection of Child Rights and voluntary organisation Young Lives in 2018 shows that while overall prevalence of child marriage among 15 -19 year – old girls declined significantly from 26.5% in 2005-06 to 11.9% in 2015-16, poverty and status of education are key factors in the circumstances that lead to child marriage. The study also reveals that amongst the married girls aged 15 to 19 years, 31.5% girls were found to have babies. Almost a quarter of the married girls in the age group of 15 to 16 years had at least one baby.