Just another meaningless number

The move to increase the age of marriage from 18 to 21 is full of sound and fury but will achieve nothing

Published - August 28, 2020 12:14 pm IST

Illustration by Mihir Balantrapu

Illustration by Mihir Balantrapu

With the government indicating that it might increase the minimum age of marriage for women from 18 to 21, we are again faced with a move that looks superficially “women-centric” but is actually born of a very incomplete understanding of women’s issues.

The first myth to eliminate is that the move means gender parity simply because it equates the marriage ages for men and women. Given the extreme precarity of women’s positions in our patriarchal society, this facile ‘equality’ means nothing for real empowerment.

Second, fiddling with legal age won’t fix the multitude of underlying issues that force women into early marriage. Families fear escalating dowries and social stigma. They fear for the safety of unmarried daughters. They fear inter-caste/ community love affairs. They fear having to keep feeding an extra mouth. Not one of these is addressed by changing 18 to 21. It only casts the net of criminality wider — drawing more distressed women and families into the downward spiral of cops and courtrooms.

In a recent press conference organised by Partners for Law in Development (PLD), feminist lawyer Madhu Mehra pointed to how such laws often become a new source of harassment. She cited the case of a young woman in Karnataka who was denied a widow’s pension because she was below 18 when she married. This, in effect, is what the new law will do — push a new segment of hapless women into legal isolation and increased vulnerability.

Third, the new law is being offered as a solution to improve maternal and infant mortality rates (MMR & IMR). This reasoning is incomplete and not backed by robust data. According to a 2019 report of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, the average age of women’s marriage in India is already 22.1 years. Yet, while falling within this average, Kerala’s MMR is 43 (national average 113) and IMR is 10 (33). Clearly, the reasons for Kerala’s far better health indices must be sought elsewhere — in how it has tackled poverty, female education, reproductive health, and awareness levels.

Fourth, from the 70s onwards, a theory has been doing the rounds that raising the age of marriage will result in population control. This tacit aim remains alive, based on the entirely false premise that India’s population rate is galloping. It is not. The census shows that replacement fertility level is down to 2.2 compared to a global standard of 2.1. In fact, States like Bengal and Delhi are below 2. And this is true across religious communities.

Targeting female fertility and controlling female sexuality is a classic patriarchal solution to problems created by patriarchy. Why do girls drop out of school at puberty? Who gets better nutrition in families? Can a poor, rural family ensure its daughter will be able to study or work safely if she stays single? Will a man demand lower dowry because his bride is 22 instead of 19? Will the number of ‘child brides’ magically drop just because their marriage age has been legally raised?

Marriage is not why girls drop out of schools. Rather, enormous societal pressure forces them into early marriage. So let’s focus on what needs to be fixed first — accessible and flexible education, safe occupations and workplaces, vocational training and job creation, cash incentives to families whose daughters study up to Class 12 or undergraduate levels. Only these can delay marriage and improve women’s overall health and agency. Globally, 18 is considered adulthood. There is no need to infantilise Indian women.

At best, this is a superficial response to a multi-layered problem whose real solution requires society to change. The latter is too hard to do, so we’re fussing with the former. We can’t abolish khap panchayats who carry out unspeakable atrocities to ‘discipline’ women. We can’t punish parents who file false rape charges if their adult daughter marries a man of her choice. We can’t ensure women safe, confidential access to sexual and reproductive healthcare. So we find a simplistic panacea.

A new number that won’t solve anything but will only endanger the life and liberty of the poorest people with the least recourse to legal, social and financial safeguards, exposing them to further brutal policing. If the government really wants to help, it should forget legal tinkering and ensure legal enforcement and social transformation instead.

Where the writer tries to make sense of society with seven hundred words and a bit of snark.

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