An umbrella body of child rights organisations set up by Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, which appeared before the parliamentary panel studying the Bill on raising the age of marriage for women to 21 from 18 years, has opposed the move and emphasised the need to improve access to education to delay marriages.
The India Child Protection Forum [ICPF] comprising nearly 70 civil society organisations, represented by its convener Amod K. Kanth as well as Ravi Kant from the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation, made its submissions before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education, Women, Children, Youth and Sports headed by BJP MP Vinay Sahasrabuddhe on Monday.
The panel has been meeting NGOs for the past one week and is expected to submit its report in June. Last year, Parliament had sent the Prevention of Child Marriage Bill, 2021 to the Standing Committee after the Opposition parties expressed concerns over raising the age of marriage for women and demanded greater scrutiny of the proposed law.
The ICPF told the panel that the Prevention of Child Marriages Act, 2005 had failed to stop child marriages in the country, which was evident through the National Crime Records Bureau data which show that only 2,530 cases were registered under the Act between 2016 and 2020, while the National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-2021) indicated that 23.3% of women surveyed were married before attaining the legal age of marriage of 18.
It has sought that the government invest in improving access to education to check school dropouts and demanded that girls be provided free education till 18 years of age.
Like many child rights organisations, the ICPF has also underlined that raising the age of marriage for women to 21 will result in criminalising young adults entering into wedlock, especially those who marry against the consent of their parents.
At least five women’s organisations, including the All India Democratic Women’s Association, the National Federation of Indian Women and the All India Progressive Women’s Association, have also sent a joint memorandum to the panel seeking that the age of marriage for both men and women should be fixed at 18 in line with the recommendation of the Law Commission Report of 2008 as well as the Indian Majority Act, 1875 which grants men and women the right to enter into contracts when they attain the age of 18.
They have said that raising the age of marriage to 21 will “far from empowering women, it will empower the patriarchal violence against women’s autonomy” when they exercise their choice to marry, and that if the government was keen to empower women it should improve employment opportunities for them.
Right to Education Act
Other NGOs which have met the parliamentary panel include the Delhi-based HAQ: Centre for Child Rights. Earlier this year, the NGO along with 104 other organisations, in its submission to the panel demanded that the Right to Education Act, 2009 be extended from 14 to 18 years to incentivise retention of girls in school. Since the Bill aims to curb maternal mortality and infant mortality rates and improve nutrition levels among children, the NGOs also explained that it was imperative to improve some of the underlying factors such as poverty levels, inadequate access to health services and lack of education which were more strongly related to health outcomes arising out of pregnancy rather than the age of marriage.