A task force set up by the Centre has recommended that the minimum age for marriage for women in India may be fixed at 21, setting off a debate on marriage, women empowerment and consent. Here’s a dossier on the history of marriageable age for women, and more.
Mid-January, the task force designated to reconsider the age of marriage for women in India submitted its report to the Centre after six months of deliberations. The Centre had set up the panel headed by former Samata Party president Jaya Jaitley in June 2020 to study the overall impact of age of marriage and motherhood on the health and well-being of the mother and child. The panel included Niti Aayog member (health) Dr V K Paul, academicians Najma Akhtar, Vasudha Kamat and Dipti Shah besides secretaries of several departments like higher education, school education, legislative, health, and women and child development.
Before long, a report by the State Bank of India hailed it as a move that would result in “enormous benefits on social and economic fronts for women”. It went on to list a plethora of advantages for women, from better opportunities in education and career and improved financial independence to lower maternal mortality rate.
The numbers say it all
In fact, it is difficult to ignore the correlation between the marriageable age of women in land and its overall development status. Though the average age of marriage varies from country to country and culture to culture, today the age of marriage of its women is directly related to a nation’s wealth. While women in poorer countries like Niger and Mozambique marry around the ages of 17-18, it is nearly 32 years in developed countries like France and Germany.
Richer countries also seem to close the gap between the average age of marriage of men and women. The difference is under two years in Japan and the US, but over six in Cameroon and Morocco. It comes as no surprise that the threshold age was quite low until recent history.
A glance back in time
Ancient Roman law pegged the age of majority at 21 years, but the age of marriage was as low as 12 for girls and 14 for boys. Since virginity was considered of utmost importance, women from noble families were married off at the earliest. With the advent of Christianity in Rome, the same age criteria got into the Church’s law books and eventually found its way to colonial America.
It may seem unlikely, but in medieval Europe, religion was a big factor in driving up the age of marriage. The Church wanted to weaken the power of clans and made laws which prohibited marital relations that would encourage the continuance of clans. This gradually led to the rise of nuclear families. And nuclear families meant that one had to be financially independent. So people waited to get married until they could afford a house and related expenses. By the 1600s, the average age of marriage rose to 19 years in women — but the youngest bride on record was still 13 years old.
Families also followed a practice where the parents of minor children as young as 5 years or even 3, would arrange their ‘future’ marriage. In such instances, the marriage would be consummated only after the ‘couple’ attained maturity.
The French Revolution succeeded in raising the age of marriage by a year each to 13 for girls and 15 for lads in France in 1792 — this was revised to 15 and 18, respectively by 1804.
In the US, secondary schooling was made free in the twentieth century and soon it was made mandatory for children. Simultaneously, laws were passed to prevent child labour and spelt out schooling criteria that would be required for obtaining work permits. All of these worked together to push up the age of marriage.
In 1929, the UK Parliament raised the minimum age for marriage to 16 for both sexes following a national campaign. It was in 1991 that the country revised it to 18 years. Even France raised the minimum age of women to 18 years only as recently as 2006 in a bid to fight domestic violence.
The first time that Indian laws dealt with the subject was in 1860 when it criminalised sexual intercourse with a girl under 10 years old. Nearly seven decades later, the Age of Consent Bill 1927 made marriage with a girl below the age of 12 illegitimate. But it was a different era altogether and conservatives cried foul as they saw it as an assault on tradition.
In 1929, the Sharda Act (named after legislator Harbilas Sharda who introduced the bill) was passed by the Imperial Legislative Council of India. It fixed the age of marriage for girls at 14 years and boys at 18 years. This law was amended in 1978 to raise the age to 18 and 21 years for women and men, respectively.
Across the world, 18 is considered the marriageable age in most countries. However, nearly all of these countries also have exceptions in laws that allow those younger than 18 years to marry with parental/judicial consent. A 2013 survey by the Policy Analysis Center, found that a whopping 93 countries legally allow girls to marry before the age of 18 with parental consent.
According to the UN Population Fund, even today one in every five girls is married or is in a union before turning 18. The number is twice as much in the least developed nations.
Why is raising the age relevant?
The primary argument in favour of keeping the age of marriage at 18 is that individuals are able to attain better physical, mental and emotional readiness to face the complex challenges that a wedded life presents. When a person turns 18 he/she also gains the right to vote and enter into other contracts recognised by law — in short, they have more control over their own lives and decision-making.
According to sources, the report submitted by the central task force highlights the positive effects that arise from delaying marriage, including the social, economic and health outcomes. It also refers to studies from over 50 nations indicating that the risk for infant mortality as well as diarrhoea and anaemia following first births falls noticeably after age 21 in mothers.
Experts, however, believe that without addressing the causes that lead to earlier marriages in women — poverty, lack of education and security —merely raising the legal age may not work wonders. How the task force plans to tackle such underlying issues may well determine the long-term efficacy of its suggestions.