With the establishment by the government of a task force, the “age at marriage” of girls and women again became a matter of national concern.
Age at marriage has been a topic of debate in India for over 140 years now. One of the earliest cases was that of Rukhmabai in Mumbai in 1884. Rukhma had been married to Dadaji Bhikaji when she was 11 in 1876. She continued to live with her stepfather and mother until the age of 19 years old, when she refused to leave. and live with her husband, which led to this now famous case in 1884. Hearing the case, Judge Robert Hill Phinney could not find a precedent in India and also struggled to use UK consent law. Her view that Rukhma was a child when she was married and therefore could not have consented was not too well received by more “conservative” Indian society and the case was reopened and Phinney’s judgment was ruled out. been overturned. However, Rukhmabai was not the type to give up easily. She wrote a letter to the editor of The Times in the guise of a “Hindu lady” and petitioned the Queen. Finally, he made Queen Victoria step in and call off the marriage. This case is seen as one of the touchstones in defining Indian nationalism within religious and cultural boundaries. Rukhmabai left the controversy behind and continued to train as a doctor in London; after her return, she practiced for many years in Gujarat.
The proposal that is now on the table of the current government is to raise the age of women who marry to 21. The Prime Minister made it one of his priorities for the year during his Independence Day address to the nation from the ramparts of Fort Rouge. Around the time Rai Har Bilas Sarda introduced the bill for the subsequent eponymous law in 1927, my maternal and paternal grandmothers were married. They were both graduates of Bethune College in Kolkata and were well over 21 when they married. Clearly, the social opposition of the Indian cultural elite to regulatory interference around the age of marriage was no longer so strong. Of the 1,209 witnesses interviewed by the Statutory Age of Consent Committee established in 1928-1929, as many as 761 were in favor of raising the age of consent. Even though the average age at marriage among upper caste Maharashtrians was around 15 at the time, according to some scholars it had become culturally appropriate, at least in some social circles, for girls to be educated in the university and that they are. married only when their education was completed and they were considered “full” adults.
The main arguments
The main arguments for raising the age of marriage beyond the existing 18 for girls relate to gender equality and health and demographic benefits. The aspect of gender equality can be addressed by also lowering the age of marriage for boys, but this does not appear to be a gradual step. The health benefits are said to accumulate because girls who have teenage pregnancies are at higher risk than those over 20, but the risks are higher at 15 or 16 and the difference of risk between, say, 19 and 22 years old is at its maximum. marginal. The most convincing argument then seems to be the demographic advantage flowing from the maxim “delaying marriage leads to delaying the age of birth and reducing the number of pregnancies”. This maxim may have been true at one point, but does not seem to reflect sound judgment in India today. Fertility rates have already fallen considerably and in more “progressive” states they are already below replacement level.
In the latest round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) conducted in 2015-16, about a quarter of all married women in the 20-24 age group were married before 18 .
This was a huge improvement over the situation a decade ago, when nearly half of all married women in the same age group were married before age 18 at the time of the previous cycle. of the NFHS. Obviously, there is a steady increase in the age of marriage for girls and in most marriages across the country today the bride is over 18. A large majority of women in India have not only had sex, but many also had their first babies by the age of 21. What advantage would there be then in legally deferring the age at marriage of women? Sexual consent and social outrage are intimately linked. Company executives were outraged when UK executives proposed raising the age of consent 140 years ago and a similar scandal still exists today. In many areas, sexual relations between consenting adults, when they are outside the same caste or religious groups, or if it is outside of marriage, can result in murder to “save the honor of family”.
In India, sexual initiation – especially for girls – is socially believed to be co-terminal with marriage. A large majority of women have their first sexual relationship after marriage. It’s a bit similar but not the same for boys. According to the National Behavioral Surveillance Survey (BSS 2006), 50% of young men and women in the 18-25 age group have had sex before age 18. While for women it was almost exclusively in marriage, for up to 25% of young men in some states it was with non-regular sexual partners. This is an important consideration in light of the social expectation that sex should take place within marriage, and now for women it is proposed to be only after 21 years. The age of sexual consent for women and girls is a matter of great social concern, but women and girls themselves seldom have the opportunity to contribute to the discussion. In Rukhmabai’s time, girls had to consent to sex at age 12; during my grandmothers’ marriage it was raised to 14; now our political leaders want young women to have sex only after age 21. Neither in 1891, nor in 1929, nor even now, the girl or the woman concerned is the person supposed to give her consent. Parental consent is considered sufficient, and millions of girls unwillingly consent to their marriage every year. Rukhmabai was a woman of rare courage when she not only refused to visit her husband Dadaji’s home, but also wrote a letter to the editor of the main newspaper at the time. Women who show such courage are not even welcome today.
A disturbing provision
The bill is expected to include a new provision which is disturbing. The law against child marriage in India has seldom been strictly enforced because the parties, i.e. the parents of the groom and the bride who propose this marriage, do it of their own accord. Weddings where the bride or groom is under the legal age are blessed by the leaders of society. The “catch” is that these so-called illegal marriages are not “unsuccessful” and exist as a “legal” union between the girl / woman and boy / man concerned, unless they do not. be contested by them.
The new proposal
The new proposal is that marriages under the legal age will now be considered “void”. Thus, women and girls will be exposed to sex within marriage, which is socially acceptable but legally void, and will have no right to redress, social protection or any other benefit as marriage is considered as not having taken place. In a country where the sexuality of women is closely watched as an honor of the family and the community, this is a very risky proposition for women. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly emphasized that the youth is the main resource in India. The proposed change in marriage law will do a disservice to the development of healthy sexuality among young people in India. Already, the recently enacted law on the protection of children against sexual offenses (POCSO 2012) makes sexual experimentation among young people a legally risky situation.
It criminalizes young people who explore their sexuality with charges of “statutory” rape and child sexual abuse, even if they are consenting minors. With a change in the legal age of marriage for women to 21, women between the ages of 18 and 21 are expected to remain sexually “pure” until then. Women will be forced to renounce sexual relations until marriage, and those who decide not to do so will face the threat of dishonor and their male sexual partner the threat of rape. The new proposal does not seem at all suitable for young people in its intention.
The proposed law is not a sound policy option and instead can open a new set of complications in society. It is not the best option for gender equality, women’s health, children’s well-being or for population growth.