House panel deliberates on Bill to raise marriage age for women

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House panel deliberates on Bill to raise marriage age for women

  • The Parliamentary Standing Committee scrutinizing the 'Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill 2021' which proposes to raise the age of marriage for women to 21 from 18 years, held its second meeting.
  • A Task Force headed by Jaya Jaitly was appointed by the government in June 2020 to examine matters pertaining to age of motherhood, imperatives of lowering MMR, improvement of nutritional levels and related issues.

The Task Force recommended raising the age of marriage for women.

  • The Task Force’s recommendations formed the basis for the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill 2021 that was introduced in Parliament in December 2021 by the Ministry of Women and Child Development.
  • The Bill was referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee following calls for greater scrutiny from the Opposition parties.

Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill 2021

Key provisions

  • The Bill amends the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 to increase the minimum age of marriage of females to 21 years.
  • The current law - Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 - provides that the minimum age of marriage is 21 years in case of males, and 18 years in case of females.
  • The Bill will override any other law, custom, or practice.
  • Personal laws of various religions often deal with marriage. These laws have their own standards, often reflecting custom.
  • The Bill proposes to extend the window for both the woman and the man to file for declaration of child marriage as void for up to five years after attaining the age of 18.
  • Presently, section 3(4) of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 allows a woman to file for declaration of child marriage as void before she turns 20 and for the man before he turns 23. Reasons behind the introduction of this bill
  • The government says that increasing the age of marriage will help in achieving various goals including:
  • Improvement of Infant mortality Ratio (IMR) and Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR), nutrition levels and sex ratio at birth (SRB)
  • Improvement in female labour force participation and gender equality

Key Issues with the 2021 Bill:

  • Different age for attaining majority and being allowed to marry
  • The Bill increases the minimum age of marriage for females to 21 years, bringing it on par with that for males.
  • However, the age of attaining majority is 18 years under the Majority Act, 1875.
  • This difference may have consequences regarding the rights and responsibilities of persons between 18 and 21 years of age.

Inconsistencies between the minimum age for marriage and various SC Judgements

  • In 2018, the SC said that right to marry is part of right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution.
  • It stated that the right cannot be taken away except through a law which is substantively and procedurally fair, just, and reasonable.
  • In another case in 2018, the Court held that when two adults consensually choose each other as life partners, it is a manifestation of their choice.
  • This choice is recognised under Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution.
  • The current Bill restricts the right to marry before the age of 21 years.
  • Hence it raises question about thereasonableness of restriction for those between the ages of 18 and 21 years.

Inconsistent with minimum age prescribed for certain actions

Minimum age for certain actions in India

ActionMinimum Age
Driving license18
Signing a contract18
Criminal liability18 ; persons in 16-18 year group can be tried as adults for heinous offences

Implementation challenges

  • There has been limited success in curbing marriage of girls below the age of 18 years.
  • In 2020, only 785 cases were registered under the 2006 act highlighting the fact that the detection of such marriages remains low.
  • This raises the question of whether the increase in the minimum age would have any significant impact in reducing child marriages.
  • Increased criminalisation of marriages
  • The Bill might push large part of population into illegal marriage. By making marriages under 21 years invalid, we are criminalising those who marry under this age and depriving them of protections under law.
  • 70% of early marriages take place in deprived communities such as SCs and STs, and the law will simply push these marriages underground instead of preventing them.

Recommendations by various Committees and Conventions on minimum age of marriage

Committee/ConventionRecommended ageRationale/Observations
UNICEF (2020)18 for both male and female* A person is emotionally, physically and mentally mature to marry at 18 .
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (2016)18 for both male and female* Should be equal to the age of majority.
Parliamentary Standing Committee (while examining the 2004 Bill, which later became the 2006 Act) )21 for male. 18 for female* Two different ages have been accepted socially as well as culturally in the country: however, it also observed that conflicting definition of child in different legislation may cause confusion, ambiguity, and doubt.
Law Commission of India18 for both male and female* There is no scientific reasons for the age to be different (2008).
* Age of majority grants all citizens the right to choose their governments, the legal age of marriage should also be recognised as such (2018).