Raising the age of marriage for women to 21 is a step towards empowerment


India has taken gradual step towards achieving Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal 5 emphatically calls on nation states to formulate policies to achieve gender equality. The Center has recently finalized this goal by ensuring equality of the age of marriage by raising the age of marriage for women to 21 years.

India ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1993. Article 16 of the Convention strictly prohibits child marriage and calls on governments to identify and enforce minimum age of marriage for women. Since 1998, India has had national legislation exclusively on the protection of human rights drafted in accordance with international instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. The protection of women against early marriage and Child marriage is a protection of their basic rights and this monumental step will lead to changes in related legislative frameworks to provide a comprehensive rights-based framework for Aadhi Aabadi.

The regressive perception that marriage provides women with social protection and recognition must change. Child marriage has been shown to expose women to early pregnancy, malnutrition and violence (mental, emotional and physical). Such marriages have therefore been brought within the scope of the 2006 Prohibition of Child Marriage Act. However, section 2 (a) of the law declares that women under 18 are children while for men this age is 21. difference seems to have no justifiable logic. The voting age can be equal for men and women under the Representation of Peoples Act, and the age to enter into a consensual, voluntary and valid contract is the same for men and women. What prevented us from establishing equal age conditions for entering into a valid marriage? This difference in criteria was more social than biological. General arguments based on local value judgments that women should be younger in a conjugal relationship have faded over time. Today, women are on an equal footing with men in all possible spheres of life.

Equality emanates from egalitarian laws and social transformations are both the precursors of laws and their consequence. A change in law also fundamentally alters social perceptions in progressive societies.

The equal age of marriage introduced by the Narendra Modi government will add to its many initiatives to promote women’s education. According to the Pan-Indian Higher Education Survey, the enrollment rate of female students in higher education increased from 46.2% in 2015-16 to 49% in 2019-2020. The overall growth in the number of female students enrolled between 2015 and 2020 increased by 18.2%. It should be noted that from Ujjwala to Mudra to Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana, the majority of beneficiaries of government programs have been women. For the first time in Indian politics, we are witnessing remarkable levels of representation of women in crucial decision-making positions, from the Union Council of Ministers to party structures. Empowerment of women will be given a new impetus with equality in the age of marriage.

The institution of marriage in India is one of the pillars that uphold the customs and norms of the society. Several arguments have been raised as to why the government should not tighten existing legislation prohibiting the child marriage law or make such marriages void ab initio in all cases. But we often tend to forget the equal rights of women according to their marriage age. Currently, a child marriage is voidable and the law gives parties two years from the date of the celebration to file a petition for annulment. If men can annul such a marriage until the age of 23, why should this age be only 20 for women?

Sometimes objective equality is the need of the moment. No justification – biological, social, or based on data and research – can justify the age inequality between men and women for entering into a valid marriage. India decided in 1954 with the Special Marriage Act that age should be one of the basic conditions for a valid marriage. The only flaw was not to have equality in this regard. It is being fixed. The NITI Aayog task force formed under the leadership of the Prime Minister has done a commendable job in proposing such a measure to empower girls and sisters in India.

This column first appeared in the print edition on January 6, 2022 under the title “Minding the gender gap”. The writers teach at the University of Patna as an assistant professor. Paswan is also a national spokesperson, BJP

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