The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which was introduced in Lok Sabha on December 21, seeks to increase the minimum age of marriage of females to 21 years from the current 18 years.

“It is imperative to tackle gender inequality and gender discrimination and to put in place adequate measures to secure health, welfare and empowerment of our women and girls and to ensure status and opportunity for them at par with men,” said the Bill, which has been referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee.

It is no secret that women lag behind men on almost all parameters, and many continue to be married even before they reach the age of 18. The pandemic has aggravated many of these problems.

The National Family Health Survey found that 23.3 per cent of women in the age group of 20 to 24 years were married before they turned 18. About 6.8 per cent of women in the age group of 15-19 years were already mothers or pregnant at the time of the survey.

Just 41 per cent of them have had more than tenyears of schooling as against 50.2 per cent of men.

Even in terms of economic empowerment, such as owning a mobile phone, just 54 per cent of women own a mobile phone that they use.

The lower participation of women in the workforce is also partly attributable to lack of education, marriage and domestic responsibilities.

Women and labour market

“Women participation in the labour market is the best way of empowering them. With a rise in the age at marriage they may be able to participate in the labour market before marriage; hence, it will be easier for them to continue to work even after marriage. All this is expected to reduce the fertility rate. It also gives them greater bargaining power to deal with social evils like dowry,” said Arup Mitra, Professor, Institute of Economic Growth.

Increased participation of women in the labour market has a tremendous spill over effect on the nutritional status, health and economic wellbeing of the household, he further noted.

“Raising the legal age of marriage is an indirect attempt to address other gender inequalities, such as girls being pulled out of school for marriage; the health risks from pregnancies, including maternal mortality, that early marriage entails; the unpreparedness of girls in bringing up children if they are themselves children, and so on,” said Bina Agarwal, Professor of Development Economics and Environment, University of Manchester.

Agarwal pointed out that it would be more effective to provide financial incentives for girls to remain in school, including scholarships; increasing the range and number of jobs educated girls can get; and making it safer and easier for girls to attend college or work in small towns and cities through safe transport and hostel facilities.

“Research also shows that parents are more likely to let girls finish school and delay marriage if they have good job prospects close to home. This will raise the girl’s age of marriage without legal measures,” she said.

India would, however, be amongst the few countries globally where the legal age of marriage for women would be 21. In neighbouring China, it is 20, while in countries like the UK and US, it is 18 but with exceptions and variations.

Autonomy is another issue based on which many have also raised concerns.

“Moreover, as many have pointed out, women are considered adults at 18 in every other respect, including for voting, so why not for marriage decisions as well?” Agarwal also noted.