The Centre has decided to raise the legal age of marriage of women from 18 to 21 years and is likely to move legislative amendments in the ongoing winter session of Parliament.

The Union cabinet cleared a proposal to raise the minimum age of marriage for women from 18 to 21. The Prime Minister, from the ramparts of Red Fort, last year had announced that the government had formed a committee to deliberate on issues of malnutrition and assured that a decision on marriage would be taken soon.

The cabinet clearance is yet to be implemented as law. But once it takes effect and is implemented, it would push the effective marriage of nearly a third of women who are married each year.

Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in his Independence Day speech that the government would soon take a decision on the age of marriage of women. This followed a government decision to appoint a four-member task force led by former Samata Party chief Jaya Jaitly. The panel submitted its report to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the Ministry of Women and Child Development in December last year and recommended that the age of marriage of women be raised to 21. The panel’s report has not been made public yet.

Ms. Jaitly told PTI that the rationale behind its decision was to make the age of marriage equal for both men and women.

Panel’s terms of reference
The panel was constituted in June 2020. Its terms of reference included examining the correlation of age of marriage and motherhood with the health of the mother and infant as well as key health and population indicators like Infant Mortality Rate (IMR), Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR), Total Fertility Rate (TFR), Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB), Child Sex Ratio (CSR) etc. It was also tasked to suggest measures for promoting higher education among women. According to the National Family Health Survey-5, in 2019-2021 23.3% of women in the age of 20 to 24 were married before the age of 18, which is an improvement from 26.8% in 2015-2016.

Experts argue that even at the current age of marriage of women and men, the implementation of the child marriage law is very hard so there is no basis for increasing the age of marriage of women to 21. Evidence suggests that when the law is used, it is mostly to penalise young adults for self-arranged marriages. Activists say the answer to delaying child marriages lies in ensuring access to education since the practice is a social and economic issue.

AIDWA’s appeal

The women’s wing of the CPI(M), All India Democratic Women’s Association, on Thursday appealed to the government to scrap the move to raise the age of marriage of girls. It said that it was “a diversionary tactic from a government which refuses to allocate adequate resources towards nutritional programmes like the ICDS [Integrated Child Development Scheme], education and healthcare. If, as has been noted, the nutritional status of women remains low from birth onwards, getting married at 21 and having a child after that cannot improve the condition of maternal and child health or mortality.”