The Central Government has introduced the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill 2021 in Parliament raising the marriage age of women from 18 to 21. It was in 1978 that the age of marriage for women was increased from 15 to 18 by amending the erstwhile Sharda Act of 1929.
Having a uniform marriage age for all women beyond religions and personal laws is welcome. However, the Centre’s move to push for raising it to 21 raises certain apprehensions as many experts point out that the implementation of the existing law on age of marriage does leave a lot many problems to be addressed.
The prime motto of the move seems to help women to access better education, health and employment opportunities. However, these issues are presently not addressed by the Government to the desired extent. Let us have a look at the present reality.
Right to Education Act came into force in 2009. But it is not implemented effectively in many States. While in Haryana many minor girls are found grazing buffaloes in the field, in Rajasthan many are found grazing cattle. For them raising the marriage age to 21 brings no benefit.
Literacy rate in a population refers to the percentage of literate individuals among persons aged seven and above. According to the 2011 Census, a person is considered literate when they can read and write a simple message with understanding at least in any one language.
A study conducted by the National Statistical Office (NSO) for 2017-18 provides a comprehensive analysis of female literacy rate from every state. As per the report, national female literacy rate is 70.3%, while the male literacy rate is 84.7%.
Kerala tops the list with the highest female literacy rate of 95.2%, while Rajasthan is the worst performing state with only 57.6% of its female population being literate.
According to Haryana Population Census 2021, female literacy is at 58.32% in rural area and at 77.97% in urban area against male literacy at 77.61% in rural and 90.04% in urban area. There are districts in Haryana having below 50% literacy for women like Gurgaon (48.29%), Jind (48.96%), Fatehabad (46.41%), Kaithal (47.60%). In Uttar Pradesh, male literacy is at 77.28% while female literacy is at 57.18%.
Rajasthan has the biggest gender divide of 23.2% in terms of literacy rate, making it one of the most gender unequal states. The literacy rate of females in the state is the second-worst in the country.
Despite India’s law to prohibit child marriage -- The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 -- India accounts for about a third of the global incidence of child marriage. The country is home to over 223 million child brides. 47% of women in 2005-06 had married before 18 years of age while the latest data shows that it was 23% in 2019-20. This shows that India continues to have among the highest absolute number of underage brides in the world.
Approximately one in four young women in India were married or in union before their 18th birthday. Of the country’s 223 million child brides, 102 million were married before turning 15. As per UNICEF, Child marriage is a violation of human rights.
Every child has the right to be protected from this harmful practice, which has devastating consequences for individuals and for society. The practice occurs among boys as well. Regardless of gender, marriage before adulthood is a breach of children’s rights.
At least 9,453 cases of missing children were reported in Delhi and four neighbouring States of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana between January and July 2020, according to data compiled from RTIs by NGO CRY.
Nearly 75% or 7,065 of the total missing children in these five States were girls, according to an analysis of the data. Madhya Pradesh led the five States with the maximum number of children missing at 5,446, followed by Delhi (1828), Rajasthan (1,016), Uttar Pradesh (804) and Haryana (359).
Even amidst Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the number of children missing across India is 1,08,234. According to NCRB, 4,709 victims, including 2,222 below 18 years, were trafficked across the county in 2020.
Women and Health
High levels of infant mortality combined with strong son preference motivate women to bear high numbers of children in an attempt to have a son. Research has shown that numerous pregnancies and closely spaced births erode a mother’s nutritional status, which can negatively affect the pregnancy outcome, and also increase the health risk for mothers.
Unwanted pregnancies emitted by unsafe abortions also have negative consequences for women’s health. Reducing fertility is an important element in improving the overall health of Indian women. Female foeticide is a crucial issue related to women and that causes decline in sex ratio in India.
Violence against women
Young girls below 18 are facing sexual harassment, outraging the modesty, and offences under POCSO. NCRB recorded 4,904 rape of minors in 2019. In 2020, Madhya Pradesh continued to report most cases of rape of minors with 3,259 incidents followed by 2,785 in Maharashtra and 2,630 in Uttar Pradesh.
Implementation of law
The above-mentioned data show that there are many laws in the country to protect women and minors but India is unsafe for women and girls. Laws are not implemented in letter and spirit to protect them. Money power, muzzle power and mafia defeat justice. Undisputedly politics also play a vital role to defeat justice to women
Where RTE is not implemented strictly, the girls will have to work 3 more years at home or in the field or outside. The women in States which have less graduated women will have to work for more years instead of getting more years to study.
Crime against women like rape, trafficking, sexual harassment, violence at home will increase and women have to face it for 3 more years.
To have the desired effect in raising the age, the Government should have a mechanism in place to see that RTE is strictly implemented and girls should complete graduation. For this, financial and other assistance including transportation especially in rural areas and States where low literacy prevails should be provided. Government should introduce various schemes and policies and scholarships. Only then the objective of raising the age to 21 will become a reality.
It is unfortunate that there is only one woman (TMC MP Sushmita Dev) in the 31-member Parliamentary Marriage Panel to discuss the Bill which seeks to raise the marriage age of women. The Bill is pioleted by the Women and Child Development Ministry. The Panel is led by Mr. Vinay Shasrabuddhe, a senior leader of the BJP.
The Government should take all stakeholders, like NGOs working for women empowerment, leading social activists and women MPs, into confidence before passing the Bill. However, the panel must have at least 50% of women as the matter concerns women.
(The writer is a Supreme Court lawyer and President of the Citizen’s Rights Trust, An NGO to promote Women Empowerment. Email: email@example.com)