The Jaya Jaitley parliamentary standing committee seeks to increase the marriageable age of women from 18 to 21 years of age.
Arguments in support:
The Jaitley Committee has cited international studies that show that children born to adolescent mothers (10-19) years are more likely to be stunted and of low weight than those born to young adults (21-24).
Young Lives India, a think tank, reports that China recorded a decrease in stunting in children when it increased the age of marriage in women.
The Government states that increasing the age will hence help in achieving various goals including improvement of maternal and infant mortality rates (IMR and MMR),nutritional levels, sex ratio at birth(SRB),Female Labor Force Participation, educational attainment among women and gender equality, hence lead to women empowerment.
According to Pew Research centre, a large number of countries have capped the marital age for women at 18 years, like Australia, Finland, Israel, and Russia.
In 2008, the Law Commission had suggested that 18 should be made the legal age of marriage for both men and women. Even the United Nations General Assembly had recommended this in 1989.
Besides, the international treaty Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), also calls for the abolition of laws that assume women have a different physical or intellectual rate of growth than men.
UNICEF estimates suggest that each year, at least 1.5 million girls under the age of 18 are married in India, which makes the country home to the largest number of child brides in the world — accounting for a third of the global total. Nearly 16 per cent adolescent girls aged 15-19 are currently married. Hence, the laws have clearly failed to implement even the marriageable age of 18 years in practice.
POCSO’s wide ambit of criminalization requires health providers to report underage patients seeking sexual and reproductive health services to the police. Hence, the resulting prosecutions of consenting minors will increase with the increased age. This will not only obstruct timely justice delivery for sexual abuse cases, but also push girls towards unsafe services.
A series of three studies by Partners for Law in Development (PLD) shows that legal prosecutions against forced/arranged underage marriages are risk-laden for the girl and the social workers.
Their study of district and high court child marriage cases from 2008–17 reports that two-thirds of legal prosecutions are initiated by parents of girls against elopements, whereas only one-third involve annulments or injunctions relating to arranged marriages.
Hence, Nandlal Mishra writes that the move would be counterproductive as women’s attainment of decision-making power will be further delayed and they are put into the so-called protective care of parental control.
The Government argues that delayed marriages will ensure better health of women, both reproductive or otherwise. But, if girls and women remain malnourished from birth onwards, getting married at 21 instead of 18, and having their first child at 22 instead of 19 cannot really improve the possibility of maternal and child survival and health.
Ms. Jaitley, at the head of this parliamentary committee, has herself stated that raising the age of marriage is only one of its many recommendations. Others include a strong campaign to reform patriarchal mindsets, improving access to education by providing girls safe transport to schools and ensuring toilets and sanitary napkins so girls don’t drop out, providing sex education, as well as vocational training and livelihood options.
Hence, she believes that unless all of the recommendations go with it, there is no justification to raise the age of marriage because it is like "making traffic rules without providing good roads or traffic lights.
Other recommendations by experts may include strengthening the ICDS Scheme, extending RTE Act to 18 years and providing free legal aid through government helpline for women being forced into unwanted marriages at any age.