Updated: August 29, 2020 12:36:33 pm
With the government considering to increase the minimum age of marriage of girls from 18 to 21 at par with that for boys, experts in the field of child rights, law and women’s development have said the issue requires more thought.
Drawing links between early dropouts of girl students from schools, shortcomings in the current education system, scarcity in employment opportunities, and poverty, experts feel the major issues behind the same are yet to be addressed.
“Today there is growing evidence that early marriage is the consequence of older girls dropping out of school and lacking viable employment opportunities– it does not cause dropouts. According to several studies, it is the failures and shortcomings of our education system that are prompting our youth – both boys and girls – to drop out,” Young Voices: National Working Group, a panel of experts stated.
Further, explaining that fertility rates have been dropping to below replacement levels in most Indian states including those with a relatively high prevalence of early marriage, the panel added, “Poverty – not early marriage – is the main cause of the ill-health of mothers and their newborns.”
It can be noted that a report published by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) on July 2 had observed that even after advances in India contributed to a 50 per cent decline in child marriage in South Asia — to 30 per cent in 2018, the region still accounts for the largest number of child marriages each year, estimated at 4.1 million in 2017.
In India, an analysis of child marriage data shows that among girls married before 18, 46 per cent were also in the lowest income bracket.
Meanwhile, in an online discussion held earlier this week, Enakshi Ganguly, activist and co-founder of HAQ Centre for Child Rights lauded the task force chaired by Jaya Jaitley that examines matters pertaining to the age of motherhood, particularly maternal mortality rate (MMR) and nutritional levels, with a mandate to provide recommendations for a legislative response.
“It has heard everyone – experts, academics, civil society organisations and most importantly, children and young people,” she said.
However, Ganguly added that while the law is believed to be an important instrument of social change, it would not be the only way to achieve the same. “As the enactment of laws is a visible form of action, it gives us an illusion that there is something happening and we are moving forward. This is something we need to be cognizant of as we make new laws and amendments to the existing ones,” she said.
At the same time, Kavita Ratna, Director – Advocacy, The Concerned for Working Children (CWC), a child rights NGO said raising the age of marriage through law would criminalise, and not prevent early marriage.
“Over the last few years, there have been moves to make laws more and more punitive as if all the answers can be achieved through legal change. Merely having a new minimum age of marriage law for women at 21 years without the presence of enabling opportunities in the form of access to higher education and decent job opportunities translates effectively into young women being even more trapped in their natal homes,” she added.
Ratna was also instrumental in collating data and presenting the ‘Young Voices National Report’ to the task force earlier in July. The collective behind the report had consulted around 2500 young people from 15 states – Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Telangana, Punjab and Haryana – in a bid to help their voices reach the corridors of power. 96 civil society organisations (CSOs) from across the country were also part of the same.
Among these were two teenagers, Mamta Jangid (from Ajmer, Rajasthan), and Priyanka Murmu, (a Class 12 student from Jharkhand) who were also picked to represent views of the young in front of the task force.
In the discussion, Jangid aired her concern on how the government would be able to stop child marriages if the minimum legal age is increased. “How can this be stopped when the village heads themselves indulge in the act? While girls aren’t allowed to attend classes despite having schools in villages, what would an increase in legal age to marry possibly do,” she questioned.
Further, she added that child marriages have been the result of leaving education, and not the other way around, in some instances. “Education should be the main focus of the government,” Jangid said adding that a woman would be able to decide if she wants to marry if she is allowed to vote at the age of 18 years.
Meanwhile, during the discussion, Murmu explained how Indian parents start thinking about marriage as soon as a girl child is born. “For them (parents), getting the girl child married off is the end goal. While women are neither educated nor employed, increasing the (minimum legal) age to marry would end up burdening the parents first. Getting the girl child educated and providing employment opportunities should be the focus instead,” the teenager said.
‘Law designed to protect young being used to harm instead’
Madhu Mehra, Executive Director of Partners for Law in Development – a legal resource group working towards social justice and women equality – ascertained that laws meant to protect the young were being used to harm them instead.
“The law (Prohibition of Child Marriage Act) which was actually designed to protect young people, has been set up in such a way in the Indian context that it is being used to harm young people. One would not need honour crimes when there is a law lending itself for the cause,” Mehra said.
Also a founding member of the National Coalition Advocating for Adolescent Concerns (NCAAC), Mehra added that women could become more vulnerable to parental control if the minimum age for marriage is hiked to 21 from 18. “Parents can then use the law to punish elopement right up to 21 years. Women could become even more vulnerable to parental control and backlash,” she said.
Further, she added that child marriage is a “poverty phenomenon” and most families that would be penalised or criminalised would be poor. “While these (child) marriages don’t have legal validity, they cannot exercise their legal marriage rights as well.”
‘Research in child marriage issue inadequate’
Mary E John, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies pointed out inadequacies in research conducted towards the issue of child marriages. “We are dealing with a challenge of what we know, or what we think we know. We all think that a higher age of marriage is by definition a better thing, and translates into more opportunities for women, more decision-making power for women. I was remarkably surprised to see how weak the actual link of age is,” she said.
John added that the belief that a hike in the legal age would translate into better outcomes was not viable. “Age per se doesn’t really make much of a difference,” she said.
Suggesting a resolution to the same, the collective of Young Voices Ratna and CSOs urged the government to invest adequately to sustain a large-enough cadre of well-trained and adequately paid ASHA and Anganwadi workers.
“Excess female mortality and gender-biased sex selection (where the latter bears no relation to early marriage) are crying out for state attention. In sum, there is no benefit from fixing a law that is not broken, whereas substantial gains will flow from a focus on empowerment rather than age,” they stated.
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