More than a year after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the plan during his Independence Day address of 2020, the Union Cabinet Wednesday passed a proposal to raise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years — the same as men.
Sources told The Indian Express that following the Cabinet’s approval, the Government will introduce an amendment to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, and consequently bring amendments to the Special Marriage Act and personal laws such as the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955.
Wednesday’s clearance is based on recommendations submitted to Niti Aayog in December 2020 by the Centre’s task force, headed by Jaya Jaitly, which was constituted to examine “matters pertaining to age of motherhood, imperatives of lowering MMR (Maternal Mortality Rate), improvement of nutritional levels and related issues”.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Jaitly said: “I want to make clear that our reasoning behind the recommendation was never one of population control. Recent data released by NFHS 5 (National Family Health Survey) have already shown that the Total Fertility Rate is decreasing and the population is under control. The idea behind it (the recommendation) is the empowerment of women.”
According to data from NFHS 5, India attained a Total Fertility Rate of 2.0 for the first time, below the replacement level of TFR at 2.1, indicating that a population explosion in the coming years is unlikely. The data also revealed that child marriage has come down marginally from 27 per cent in 2015-16 to 23 per cent in 2019-21.
Jaitly, who is the former president of Samata Party, said the task force’s recommendation came “after extensive consultations with experts, and more importantly with young adults, especially young women as the decision affects them directly”.
“We have had feedback from 16 universities and engaged over 15 NGOs to reach out to young people, particularly in rural and marginalised communities, such as in particular districts in Rajasthan where child marriage is quite prevalent. Feedback was taken across religions, and from urban and rural areas, equally,” she said.
“Across the board, the feedback we received from young adults is that the age of marriage should be 22-23 years. There have been objections from certain quarters, but we felt it was more important to be guided by the target group,’’ she said.
The task force, set up in June 2020 by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, also included Dr V K Paul of Niti Aayog and Secretaries of the WCD, Health and Education ministries and of the Legislative Department.
It has recommended that a comprehensive public awareness campaign be chalked out to encourage social acceptance of the decision. It has also sought access to schools and universities for girls, including transportation in the case of educational institutes in far-flung areas.
The committee has further recommended that sex education be formalised and introduced in the school curriculum. Training of women in polytechnic institutes, skills and business training and livelihood enhancement has also been recommended as means to ensure that an increase in marriageable age can be implemented.
“If girls can show they are financially independent, parents will think twice before marrying them off early,’’ said sources.
Section 5(iii) of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 sets 18 years as the minimum age for the bride and 21 for the groom. The Special Marriage Act, 1954 and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 also prescribe 18 and 21 years as the minimum age of consent for marriage for women and men, respectively.
Referring to the setting up of the task force during her Budget Speech for 2020-21, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had said: “Women’s age of marriage was increased from 15 years 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 MMR as well as improvement of nutrition levels. Entire issue about the age of a girl entering motherhood needs to be seen in this light.”