In a historic decision, the Union Cabinet on Wednesday passed a proposal to raise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years thereby bringing them at par with men. The decision was based on recommendations submitted to Niti Aayog last year by a task force constituted by the Central Government under the chairmanship of Jaya Jaitly, along with Dr V K Paul of Niti Aayog and Secretaries of the Women and Child Development Ministry, Health and Education ministries and of the Legislative Department, to examine ways to encourage higher education among women, explore the impact of marital age on infant mortality rate, maternal mortality rate, the mental health of the mother, nutritional status of both the mother and child, sex ratio at birth and child sex ratio etc. The decision has received widespread appreciation from all quarters of the society irrespective of caste, creed and religion. However, a section of the society has questioned the decision on certain parameters which needed to be answered.
Some allegations can be heard about the new proposal to be used as a tool for population control. The allegations can be easily countered by quoting the recent data released by National Family Health Survey which has clearly shown that the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is decreasing and the population is under control. India attained a Total Fertility Rate of 2.0 for the first time, below the replacement level of TFR at 2.1 which shows a clear decline population explosion. Some people have raised questions on the extent of the survey. Jaya Jaitly while submitting the task force’s report categorically said that “The survey is based on feedback from 16 universities as well as from over 15 NGOs which carried out extensive consultations with young people (especially in marriageable age of 21-23) particularly in rural and marginalised communities, with focus on those districts where child marriage is quite prevalent. Feedback was taken across religions, and from urban and rural areas, equally”.
To convert the proposal into a law, an amendment is needed to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, and consequently to the Special Marriage Act and personal laws such as the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 etc. once it becomes a law, the entire female population of India irrespective of religion will benefit in various fields. An enhanced marriage age will guarantee ample time for a girl child to receive quality education, to acquire skill sets and to get financial independence. And If girls can show that they are financially independent, parents will think twice before marrying them off early. An early marriage needs be seen from the perspective of an early motherhood, which is challenging for a girl physically, mentally and economically. Late marriage means late motherhood and late motherhood means more time for a girl to secure her future. Financial independence combined with quality education will ensure that women are treated equally in comparison to their male counterparts. This will ensure women empowerment in the true sense.
Women constitutes almost 50% of the world’s population. Most of the efforts to empower people are generally aimed at the other half which is represented by men. Even if the schemes/measures are not aimed at benefitting a particular section, male counter parts generally get away with the cream of any scheme/programme owing to various societal norms, age old customs, patriarchy and government apathy. This decision by the government to enhance the minimum marriage age can be the milestone on the path to women empowerment. However, a comprehensive public awareness campaign must be chalked out to encourage social acceptance of the decision along with ensuring access to schools and universities for girls, including transportation in the case of educational institutes in far-flung areas. Politically motivated people will use the issue to provoke sentiments of ill-informed people. The need of the hour is to dispel doubts for the betterment of our sisters, mothers and daughters. After all, an educated and empowered woman can change the fate of an entire generation.