The Indian government has approved a proposal to raise the minimum age of marriage for women from 18 to 21, according to media reports, as women’s rights activists fear the move could lead to “real disaster.”
The decision to raise the age was taken at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, according to reports. Currently, the minimum age of marriage for men is 21 and 18 for women.
After cabinet approval, the government is likely to introduce an amendment to the 2006 Prohibition of Child Marriage Act and, as a result, make changes to the Special Marriage Act and personal laws. such as the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955.
During his Independence Day speech in August last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned the proposal, saying the government “is constantly concerned about the health of girls and sisters.”
“To save girls from malnutrition, they have to be married at the right age,” Modi said.
Earlier this year, hundreds of girls in the northern state of Haryana, which has one of the lowest male-to-female ratios among Indian states, wrote to Modi, urging him to step up. age of marriage from 18 to 21.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, during her federal budget speech in February last year, said the decision was important and will be reviewed. “As India progresses, opportunities are opening up for women to pursue higher education and careers,” she said.
“There are imperatives to lower MMR (maternal mortality rate) as well as improve nutrition levels. The whole question of the age of a girl entering the maternity hospital must be considered in this light, ”she said, appointing a working group to examine the issue.
The high-level working group – made up of representatives from the ministries of health, law and the development of women and children – supported the proposal, recommending that a woman be at least 21 years old at the time of birth. her first pregnancy.
According to a 2017 United Nations report, India was struggling to end child marriage and improve the health of its mothers. The report states that up to 27% of Indian girls were married before they turned 18.
“Disaster for women”
Ranjana Kumari, director of the New Delhi-based Center for Social Research, said she welcomed the government’s decision, adding that she wanted the age of marriage for both sexes to be the same.
“I welcome the decision. Now the responsibility of the government and the political parties should be to start working on changing the mindset in society, because this will not happen just by enacting a law, ”Kumari told Al Jazeera.
“We have to make sure that the girls finish their education, that they have to work if they want to work so that there is a job opportunity that they were missing. “
However, feminists and women’s rights activists criticized the move, saying it would be a “disaster for women.”
“It will be [a] disaster if they want to consider all marriages before age 21 as invalid, ”activist and women’s rights lawyer Flavia Agnes told Al Jazeera.
“Even now, so many girls are getting married before they are 18. They get pregnant at 13, 14 and 15 years old. Now you are going to wear it at 21, it will be a real disaster.
In rural areas, Agnes said, girls are married at an early age. “Parents don’t want to keep them at home because of the risk of rape or running away. “
In response, Kumari said that “radical feminist groups” have opposed increasing the age of marriage for women “from the start”.
“I don’t think it’s a disaster. I think it’s an opportunity, but the only problem is that it has to be properly campaigned and the community and society have to be aware of accepting it as the norm, ”she said. declared. “This is the best way to end child marriage. “
Kavita Krishnan, activist and politician for the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), also believes that the cabinet’s decision to increase the age of marriage for women is “very bad” and “problematic”.
“This is an approach primarily intended to control the autonomy of women even more. Already, the right of women to marry by their own choice has been attacked and now it will increase further as it will be sanctioned by law, ”she told Al Jazeera.
Krishnan said it is the empowerment of young women that is “the maximum attack” in India.
“I think the minimum age of marriage for men should also be 18. If you are allowed to vote at 18, you are an adult and you should get all the rights that any adult has,” he said. she declared.