A magic wand for women’s empowerment or a red herring?

Mala* (name changed to protect her identity) from a village in Budaun district of Uttar Pradesh had always dreamed of getting married. In July, however, when her parents told the 13-year-old she was going to marry a man much older than her, she panicked. Her father, who had lost his job during the pandemic, was struggling to make ends meet and the family deemed it best to marry off the girl. A Class VIII student, Mala ran away from home and told her school friends about it. Fortunately, the girls from Mala’s school had recently attended a workshop with a local child rights NGO, who had given them a helpline number. With the help of her classmates, Mala managed to inform her teachers and NGO officials, who intervened to prevent the marriage. The incident happened months after India decided to raise the age of marriage for children, in order to eliminate child marriage.


The Narendra Modi government announced in March its decision to raise the age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 under the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill 2021.

The move has been welcomed by women’s and children’s rights activists and health care workers, who believe a uniform age of marriage will help reduce child marriage and also help women in other areas. such as education, labor market participation, reproductive health, sexual safety, autonomy and family violence. But can pushing back the age of marriage by just three years help reverse all of these factors that have been forged over centuries of gender discrimination and oppression? Not all agree.

“Child marriage is not only an expression of patriarchy, but also of other social issues. Poverty, unemployment and skewed sex ratios drive many families to marry off their daughters at young ages or even sell them for cash,” said Kahkashan Perween of ActionAid Lucknow. Outlook. In Uttar Pradesh, where one in five girls is said to be a child bride, the employment rate is only 30%. Additionally, Perveen notes that pandemic-induced job loss and economic stress have led to a surge in child marriages in rural districts, though a majority remains unreported.

Unholy Union Cpile of plastic doll popular among rural girls Photo: Chinki Sinha

“Sometimes it’s a question of survival. In a patriarchal home, young girls are the most indispensable items,” Perween adds. Raising the age of marriage, according to the activist, sounds good on paper, but does nothing to address the underlying factors that contribute to child marriages.

Studies show that women who are married before a certain age and give birth early conceive stunted, anemic or malnourished babies, and themselves face nutritional deficiencies, high rates of miscarriages and problems during birth. future pregnancies. However, the impact of child marriage is not limited to a single generation. Renu Singh, director of the Young India Research Centre, tells Outlook that studies show significant links between a woman’s age at conception and the “intergenerational transition of poverty” – where poverty is transmitted from one generation to another.

Women who are married before a certain age and give birth early conceive weak, anemic or malnourished babies and face complications themselves.

Early marriages have a direct impact on women’s participation in the labor force. Secondary and primary research and national datasets reveal multiple issues that women face when transitioning into the labor market, in cases of early marriage. “There is also a direct impact on a woman’s ability to access higher education, which in turn has a significant impact on her employment opportunities. So we see the cyclical damage of girl marriage at a young age,” Singh says.

But will raising the age of marriage automatically increase women’s access to higher education?

According to educator Bharti Ali, such beliefs are nothing but wishful thinking. “Uniform marriage age is not a magic wand that will magically solve women’s problems in India,” Ali says, adding that it may give women more time to negotiate with their parents, but will not encourage not investing in his education.

“Data shows that the majority of cases of child marriage occur in rural and agrarian families. With the increasing privatization of education making higher education an expensive affair, it is unrealistic to expect the family to invest in girls’ education just because they have more time. before he can marry her. They just don’t have the money,” Ali says.

Ali notes that while the government had its heart in the right place in raising the age of marriage for women, India continues to lack effective mechanisms to implement the law. Despite the ban on child marriages, the latest data from the National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5) 2019-21 shows that 14.7% of women in India in the age bracket 20- 24 in urban areas, were married before they turned 18. The percentage reached 27 years in rural areas. In addition to child brides, the NFHS-5 also recorded a significant number of child mothers, with 3.8% of rural women and 7.9% of urban women in the 15-19 age group being pregnant or having already given birth.

“Instead of beating their chests over the age of marriage, the government and the judiciary must focus on bringing about individual reforms on issues such as education, domestic violence, employment, skills, reproductive health and family planning,” Ali said. Outlook.

Issues of gender equality and women’s rights cannot operate in a vacuum. A child marriage monitoring mechanism requires not only adequate child protection officers, gender-aware police forces and government personnel, but also entire communities at the gram panchayat level who are sensitized and with children as defenders. Legislation is just the start.

Incidentally, the Center, by its own admission, relied on a 2017 SC judgment in a marital rape exemption case, in which the court ruled that intercourse with an underage wife constituted rape, simply because she was a minor. The verdict, while landmark in child protection, deftly sidestepped the issue of women’s consent, on which debates in favor of the criminalization of marital rape have been anchored.

Ali points out that by making marriage under the age of 21 illegal, the legal system has once again denied women their free will for consent. “Not all marriages are forced. Some women choose to marry, say to come out of abusive paternal homes or financial stress. Making marriage a punitive affair can become a very complicated affair.

Mara R. Wilmoth