In India, the government has proposed legislation to raise the minimum age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years old, bringing it on par with men and saying it will empower women. But many women activists say the planned law would do little to address deep-seated societal problems that result in millions of young girls being married at an age even younger than 18.
"We are doing this so that they can have time to study and progress. The country is taking this decision for its daughters," Prime Minister Narendra Modi said after The Prohibition of Child Marriage [Amendment] Bill was introduced in parliament Tuesday. The action comes more than a year after he said, during an Independence Day speech, that the government is considering raising the legal age of marriage for women.
The government says the aim is to provide equal opportunity to women by giving them more time to complete their education, access employment opportunities, attain psychological maturity before marriage and ensure gender parity.
“In a democracy, we are 75 years late in providing equal rights to men and women to enter into matrimony,” Smriti Irani, minister of women and child development, said in parliament Tuesday.
The proposed law would mark a major change for women in a country where, according to several estimates, about 50 percent marry before turning 21.
Some women’s groups have supported the bill. “Completing her education and employability ensures a better life for a girl than being dependent on her husband all her life,” Ranjana Kumari, director of the New Delhi-based Center for Social Research, told VOA.
She wants the marriage age for both genders to be the same. “Why should the boy be elder to the girl? Who has made that decision?” she questioned.
The government says the proposed change is also prompted by concerns for the health of women who become mothers at a young age. Early marriages are linked to higher infant mortality and low life expectancy, especially among rural women.
According to Irani, raising the age of marriage for women would help bring down the incidence of teenage pregnancies.
Some experts, however, cautioned that the proposal might backfire because it does not address the underlying causes of early marriage such as poverty, patriarchal attitudes and lack of access to education, and fear that if these root causes are not solved, an age change could do more harm than good.
They point out that although marriages for girls under 18 are currently illegal, child marriages still pose a major challenge in the country — as many as one quarter of women ages 20 to 24 were married before they turned 18, according to the National Family Health Survey, 2019-21.
“The bill is well-intentioned but thoughtless,” says Mary John, professor at the Center for Women’s Development Studies, a research and advocacy organization. According to her, many of the indicators that the government is trying to address, like maternal mortality, will not be solved by simply raising the age of marriage.
“An anemic woman will remain anemic, whether she gets married at 18 or 21. She stops being anemic only if she gets better health and nutrition,” John told VOA.
Pointing out that the proposed law will lead to criminalizing many women whose families marry them off at an early age, she said, “It betrays a carelessness and disinterest in women’s empowerment and will leave a large number of women without protection.”
Some women activists call the bill a token gesture that will not empower women. They say that the government should focus on improving access to educational facilities, which remain deficient, especially in the country’s vast rural areas, better nutrition and health care, and ensure safety and security for women.
“There cannot be any gain through a law either educationally or economically or on health indicators. Unless you earmark enough funds to tackle these basic problems, how can you change these issues?” Annie Raja, general secretary of The National Federation of Indian Women, told VOA.
She says if the aim is to implement gender parity, then the government should reduce the marriage age for men to 18.
Others argue that if a girl at 18 is old enough to vote or be treated as an adult if she commits a crime, there is no reason why she cannot marry at that age.
Responding to such criticism, supporters of the bill say that this move should not be seen as a problem but an opportunity. “There are a lot of other recommendations made by the government to facilitate education for girls up to graduation and also to have reproductive health rights made available to all girls,” according to Kumari.
However, she agrees that every arm of society, such as government, political parties or civil society, will have to work to make a higher age for marrying girls acceptable to communities. “Just by changing the law you do not change society or the institution of marriage, which is a social institution accompanied by cultural practices.”
The proposal has also been welcomed by hundreds of young girls, who have been campaigning in the northern Indian state of Haryana to raise the marriage age for women.
“It’s a huge step forward,” said 17-year-old Prachi Chauhan, one of the campaigners. “Such a law will help take away societal and parental pressure to get married soon after turning 18 that many girls face.”
Suhasini Sood contributed to this story.