By Shree Baphna, AsAmNews Staff Writer & South Asian American Advisory Board Member
The Indian Parliament is currently debating a new bill that seeks to raise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21. By contrast, the legal age of marriage for men is currently 21. The main purpose of this bill was to crack down on child marriage practices in India and of course, level the playing field for young men and women.
For most Indian Americans who are my age, I can only assume that such an issue appears to be outdated, and extremely patriarchal. For those residing in the west, it perhaps gives glimpses of India’s gender-biased side. Marriage laws in the west and the United States seem to relatively more gender-blind. Both individuals must be a minimum legal age of eighteen, irrespective of gender. In most states, minors who are sixteen or seventeen can get married with guardian consent.
However, India’s legal system is seemingly more complex, especially concerning the question of different legal ages of marriage between men and women. The current law takes precedence from the legislation that came before it, and has long-since held women and girls at a stark disadvantage. In fact, you may be as shocked as I was when I found out that until 1978- within my own parents’ lifetime- the legal age of marriage for girls was fifteen.
What is most intriguing are the arguments that are coming up in support and against the new bill that seeks to amend the current legislation.
To understand more, I contacted a source who has worked intensively in issues of gender equality and social justice, particularly on this matter concerning the Indian marriage bill. In the interest of confidentiality, the source requested to remain anonymous. I will refer to her by the alias Anamika for this article.
In my conversation with Anamika, I first wanted to understand the pros and cons of such a law being implemented in India. I asked her from the angle of being a young woman herself, and also as someone who has worked with women’s rights groups.
While the bill- on the face of it- represents a move towards greater equality and as a way to improve maternal mortality rates and education, Anamika was skeptical of it being anything more than a “band-aid solution” that overlooks the complexity and multitude of factors contributing to the incidence of child marriage. She mentioned how there are links between economic vulnerability and child marriages, explaining that more impoverished families actually see child marriage as a way to lessen their financial burdens. Marrying off a young girl is “one less mouth to feed”, and is therefore, a survival tactic. While this cannot be condoned because it robs young girls of basic rights to education and jobs, and places strenuous health consequences upon them due to chances of early pregnancy, such a legal response in the form of a bill would be “deeply inadequate”. Without first understanding what really adds to the vulnerability of women and girls, any legislation such as this bill, will remain hollow solutions.
To Anamika, this bill feels like the easy way out without devoting proper time and money to solve more serious problems in India’s societal fabric. Instead of having a more rehabilitative approach to such issues, extending the legal age of marriage would only increase the criminalization of the poor and underprivileged. More so, it would criminalize consensual relationships between adolescents who are underage. The bill could also be weaponized to further stigmatize inter-caste and inter-religious consensual relationships- which in India, is already a source of violence and harm against young women and men. Furthermore, instead of creating a more open-minded path towards sex and sex education for young people, the bill would only lead to more infantilization of young adults and sends a message that such activity is immoral. Destroying safe spaces for exploration for young populations only increases incidences of misconduct and disenfranchisement through criminalization.
Curious to know more, I asked Anamika why the bill was being contested in India by the nation’s multiple religious groups. India currently does not have a common civil code, but allows various religious communities to operate based on their own personal laws. This proposed marriage bill seeks to make an amendment to the various laws followed by religious communities as well, and has therefore invited opposition. Most of the protest has to do with the fact that the bill encroaches upon the rights of religious communities, and not so much with the bill being an incomplete solution to a structural problem. One thing in particular that Anamika did highlight, was the implicit saviour-complex this latest marriage bill seemed have. Given the current BJP’s strong pro-Hindu stance, there has been speculation that this bill echoes colonial-era white-saviourism, and promotes the idea that ‘privileged’ Hindu men are here to rescue women from religious minority groups, who are otherwise subject to ‘unfortunate’ fates.
On a personal front, I had also been hearing a lot about the increase in child marriage rates during the COVID-19 pandemic. Families who were faced with more financial hardship due to the pandemic saw child marriage as a way out of their predicament, for the same reasons explained earlier. I asked Anamika whether or not the timely introduction of this bill in an effort to push child marriage numbers down is a mere coincidence. While Anamika said she did not feel she could comment on this, she reiterated that this bill lacked the proper structural change needed to make a real difference. As stated before, it has certainly been pushed into the limelight as a way to accomplish quick goals on paper.
Anamika provided an interesting insight into the Modi government’s other gender equality project, the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao program. The name of this scheme, which roughly translate from Hindi to “save girl children and educate girl children”, is exactly as the name suggests: improve welfare services for girls in India and discourage regressive practices like female infanticide. However, what shocked me to know was that nearly 80% of the program’s funding has been used only for marketing and publicity. The remaining, just above 20%, has actually been towards implementation.
Therefore, there certainly exists a certain history when it comes to actual implementation of legislation or policy. As Anamika rightly pointed out before, laws and policies are nothing without changes made on the ground. If the aim of this bill is to extend legal marriage age so that women are better able to avail of education opportunities and health benefits, what infrastructural changes are being made to make sure this law is actually effective? For instance, how does it ensure that young women and girls have access to education or job opportunities? How many of them can avail of a functional health system for sexual and reproductive health services? It seems no one is really considering these very important conditions for this bill to even have a sustainable effect. The biggest irony of all is that India seems to be leading into this development by electing men in positions of power to decide what is best for women and girls in the nation- the committee formed to discuss this bill has 30 male parliament members and 1 female parliament member. Unfortunately, it still seems that true gender equality will still be a journey of two steps back for every one step forward.
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