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Raising legal age of marriage for women is well intentioned. But it will take more to address complex social challenge

The soaring aspirations of women in India often run into harsh, limiting realities. They need governments to commit to expanding their opportunities far more urgently than for them to decide when they can marry.

By: Editorial |
Updated: December 22, 2021 9:29:36 am
While legal reform is essential, care must be taken to ensure that it does not fall into a policy approach that sees women as passive recipients or conceives of their well-being only in terms of marriage and motherhood.

The government’s decision to raise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 is well intentioned. The Cabinet cleared the move after a task force set up to examine matters of “motherhood, maternal mortality rate and improvement of nutrition” suggested that a change in the minimum age of marriage would help “empower women”. But meeting that goal will require much more. It will mean addressing a complex social challenge made of poverty, devalued status of women in society, suspicion of women’s sexual choices and lack of girls’ access to education and income opportunities.

The sharpest dip in the percentage of girls marrying before they turn 18 was seen in the decade between the NFHS-3 (2005-6) and NFHS-4 surveys (2015-16), when it came down from 47.4 per cent to 26.8 per cent, coinciding with an expansion in education opportunities across the board. It has shown a slight improvement in the NFHS-5 survey (2019-21). Nearly a quarter of Indian girls (23 per cent) continue to be married before they turn 18, despite existing legal barriers. Several estimates suggest that over half of Indian women get married before the age of 21; in the poorest communities, that number is much higher. Raising the age of marriage would, therefore, criminalise a large number of marriages, with a disproportionate effect on the most underprivileged groups. There is a clear link between education and delayed marriage. Data shows that women with 12 or more years of schooling marry much later than other women. Think of a 15-year-old girl from an underserved community in rural India. The chances of her staying in school, and going on to study further, go up only if there are more high schools and colleges near her home, if she can access a reliable transport service or stay in hostels; and, finally, if education opens up paths to livelihoods and incomes. Forbidding marriage to 18-year-olds, adults in the eyes of law, could have a special bearing on young people’s sexual lives. The policing of young women’s sexual choices by natal families is only likely to grow.

While legal reform is essential, care must be taken to ensure that it does not fall into a policy approach that sees women as passive recipients or conceives of their well-being only in terms of marriage and motherhood. The soaring aspirations of women in India often run into harsh, limiting realities. They need governments to commit to expanding their opportunities far more urgently than for them to decide when they can marry.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on December 22, 2021 under the title ‘Knotty answer’.

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