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“Child marriage ends childhood. It negatively influences children’s rights to education, health and protection. These consequences impact not just the girl directly, but also her family and the community. Estimates suggest that each year, at least 1.5 million girls under 18 get married in India, which makes it home to the largest number of child brides in the world – accounting for a third of the global total” says a report of United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), India. Early girl-child marriage has an effect, undeniably, on girl child development on many fronts viz. education, knowledge, skills, employability, health and nourishment. If prevented, health hazards like: early pregnancies (which take a toll on the mother’s body by weakening her physically or leading to her death while delivering) and infant mortality rate would substantially decrease.
Early girl-child marriage has an effect, undeniably, on girl child development on many fronts viz. education, knowledge, skills, employability, health and nourishment.
However, as is stated in the same report, the picture is not that gloomy. There is a decline already taking place, as far as child marriages are concerned in India over a period. No doubt, there are people in some pockets who deem girl-child marriage to be a conventionally agreeable and an accepted phenomenon, though the law prohibits it. They cite reasons such as: ‘security and safety of the girl lies in her marriage’, forgetting what is due to her through education that increases self-esteem, dignity, social status, economic uplift, and as an educated woman her contribution to her family, children and to the society.
Keeping all the above aspects in view, to combat child marriages, the government is considering raising the age of marriage for women. Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi touched upon the subject in his speech during the recent Independence Day Celebrations and said that to take up the issue effectively, a task force had been set-up. Earlier, way back, in 1929, Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 or the Sarda Act was amended by increasing girls’ marriage age from 15 to 18 years. That did not deter many to marry their girl-child early on. More often, laws of the kind remain in the statute books. The Dowry Act that outlawed the dowry system is another example of the sort. Though not open, tacitly/surreptitiously, with the understanding of both parties, it survives to a great extent. Hence, the change has to happen from within (the society) through awareness programs. Of course, laws are needed as an instrument for deterrence. Hence, there is a need for hiking the age for girl marriage too.
The objections expressed by many activists regarding the prospect of enacting such a law ( raising the marriage age for women from 18 years to 21) are speculative and belong to the type of questions raised about any reform proposal. For critics, hiking the legal age is unlikely to improve mother and child development. This, in any case, is an unfounded claim. With the growth and maturity that the girl/woman attains, by age and education, conceiving a baby and handling of the infant would be better and healthier. Their claim that making marriageable age equal (21 years) for a boy and a girl would not lead to gender equality, defies the basic principle of the Constitution.
The change has to happen from within (the society) through awareness programs. Of course, laws are needed as an instrument for deterrence.
The apprehension that if the law is enacted, it will criminalize early marriages must be considered for that is precisely the reason for proposing the law. Government policy to raise the legal age of marriage to 21 years for women is well thought but its implementation will be very difficult. Alternatively, as a welfare policy measure instead of a law, the government could conduct campaigns mobilizing health workers, community and religious leaders, to educate the concerned sections of the population. By now the middle classes are much ahead with regard to marriage age. They, knowing the advantages of educating the girl-child, have made the task easier. Through such a sustained campaign, India could contain population growth to a large extent. Family-planning/family-welfare programs have been deliberately adopted, by aware citizens in view of the benefits to their family and to the country at large.
For years, legally a girl could marry at 18 but the rule is not strictly followed. Violations are not punished. Now, in this digital-age, when birthdates are registered and recorded meticulously by way of computerized data-storage in school records and Aadhaar-cards, a girl/boy’s age can no longer be concealed to allow a wedding to take place . Marriages also have to be registered. So, the government needs to consider whether it is necessary to pass an act for raising the legal age. However, there is no doubt that once the law is adopted checks and balances would automatically follow.
Instead of enacting a law, a policy measure including some incentives and disincentives, might be more suitable . The beneficiaries from among the poor, who seek from the Centre and state governments, financial incentives such as: Kalyana-Lakshmi and Shaadi-Mubarak (Telangana Govt. sponsored schemes), would only be entitled to them if the bride and bridegroom are of the legal age. If they fall a bit short for some reason, they may get reduced benefits. By giving incentives, family-planning policies have worked well. So would other such policies.
All said, other factors like the physical, psychological and emotional needs of young boys and girls seem not to have been taken into account while setting the legal marriage age. They should be adequately addressed as many young people who are in love or want to find a mate have no option outside of wedlock. Though India adopted liberal democracy, by and large the society remains conservative.
Further, in a multi-religious country, minorities have their own personal laws, so whatever comes out as a law in statute books pertaining to marriage, would automatically be seen as reflecting the wish of the religious majority. The successive governments that ruled the country since independence should have promulgated a Uniform Civil Code, with respect to: marriage, divorce, maintenance and inheritance. That would thus have brought all citizens on one platform.
Finally, for those who fear that India’s demographic dividend will dwindle with this rise in the marriage age, there is an answer from a renowned contemporary thinker, Yuval Noah Harari in an interview. He answered to a question on birth rates and population decline in the world: “Only a few years ago people feared a demographic explosion that would lead to ecological meltdown…as computers and robots replace humans in the job market, the fear of a shrinking workforce might prove irrelevant, and the really big problem will be unemployment…having fewer kids means that you can give each of them more attention and invest greater resources in their education. Given the technological revolutions we are facing, I think countries that raise a small number of highly skilled individuals will be in a better position than countries that raise a large number of less skilled individuals.”
So, the twin goals of girl-child education and national development are related. Similarly, population control and social progress go hand in hand. Many experts opine that striving to end early girl-child marriage by 2030 would yield nutritional benefits, enhance household security for girls and transform Indian society for the better.