This policy shift amending the age of marriage clearly sidelines the discourse of young women’s choice and agency, not to mention the myriad of deep rooted socio-economic factors that drive early, forced marriage.
From the Field: September 2020
By Upasana Saha & Kendra Nicolai, Program Officers
September 17, 2020Reading Time: 15 minutes
In August 2020, as India celebrated it’s 74th Independence Day, the central government announced they would increase the legal age of marriage for Indian women from 18 years to 21 years with the hope of halting issues related to the age of motherhood, maternal mortality rates and child nutritional levels. The existing law, “The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006,” prescribes the minimum age of 18 years to marry to both outlaw early, forced marriages and to protect minors from abuse. UNICEF India reported in 2018 that about 27% of girls get married before they turn 18, down from 47% a decade earlier. Even though India has seen a decrease over the last 10-15 years, today’s reality in 2020 is still very grim.
With the Indian government’s announcement, many social development practitioners and activists in India felt uneasy, believing the legislation would be an accommodative approach rather than a transformative approach. The National Coalition Advocating for Adolescent Concerns (NCAAC) which submitted its concerns to the government headed task force earlier this year was quoted: “Merely increasing the age of marriage will artificially expand the numbers of married persons deemed underage and criminalize them and render underage married girls without legal protection.” Similarly, a study conducted by IFPRI and published in 2019 states: “Child marriage in low and middle-income countries shows that interventions including unconditional cash transfers, cash transfers conditional on school enrollment or attendance, school vouchers, life-skills curriculum, and livelihood training had a positive impact on increasing age at marriage.”
As the NCAAC pointed out, this policy shift amending the age of marriage clearly sidelines the discourse of young women’s choice and agency, not to mention the myriad of deep rooted socio-economic factors that drive early, forced marriage like systemic poverty, class-caste, poor educational opportunities, and gender discrimination. Since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought industry to a halt and closed schools, widening economic hardships for most low income families leading to unsafe, forced migration, and many other poor decisions that come with long term negative gendered consequences on women and girls.
This was an important topic of concern brought up by our partners during Shadhika’s Virtual Partner Roundtable meeting in August. The partners shared how early, forced marriage is causing higher rates of school drop out and that trafficking would also increase with more and more experiencing poverty. Our partners agreed that changing the age of marriage to 21 is not a sustainable solution. Many recommended strengthening the existing child protection and prevention of child marriage laws and framing new policies that advocate for a right-based and inclusive approach.
Following the roundtable discussions, Shadhika staff reached out to our partner sites throughout India to give further input on this most pressing issue.
What is your opinion about delaying the age of marriage for boys and girls?
“Jabala, as an organization, promotes gender equality and works on the issue of child rights. The proposed change in the law to raise the age of marriage of girls from 18 to 21 (to be the same as boys) may appear to be advocating gender equality but there are many underlying issues to be addressed. It is to be noted that the existing child marriage prevention law is not fully effective. Child marriage is related to the sexual and reproductive health of a girl, school dropout, poverty, the dowry system, and religious norms. Without addressing all of these factors, merely increasing the age of marriage will not solve the problem.”–Jabala Action Research Organization, Bengal
“At Vacha, we feel the current age of 18 years for girls is adequate. It is true that this leads to India having the largest number of first birth at the age of 19 as well as it is true that lack of nutrition, health facilities and clean birthing environments lead to morbidity and mortality. However, the solution is in providing better nutrition and facilities in addition to a better scope for education and employment and not in curtailing rights of individuals. When someone can see adult films at 18 or vote at 18 to decide what kind of government she/he wants, how can that person not be considered mature enough to decide about their own marriage? If this is seen as a strategy to control parents and keep them from marrying off their daughters too soon, one must see how this measure has failed already when the legal marriage age has been 18 for girls and 21 for boys. There are enough child marriages despite the 18 or 21 years requirement. If a young couple of 15 or 17 is in love, forcing them to wait until 21 would cause stress, possibly forced abortions and more problems. This would be a state imposed population control so citizens need to beware of it.”–Vacha, Maharashtra
“At Milaan, we believe that the conversation should not only focus around the age of marriage but the main weight of the conversation should be about agency. We as a country need to provide relevant and effective social infrastructure including, but not limited to, access to secondary education, access to higher education, access to vocational and technical training, access to jobs, access to sexual and reproductive health information and services. For girls to be able to transition into their adulthood with the right knowledge, skills, and social environment then they would be able to take the decision of when they want to get married based on when they feel ready to get married.”– Milaan, Uttar Pradesh
“Delaying the age of marriage from 18 to 21 for girls would be a positive step towards protecting them from familial pressures, enabling them to focus on their higher education before getting married. By delaying the age of marriage, girls could spend more time on developing their own wellbeing, focussing on their studies, and getting a job, which would increase their independence and strength of mind when they do marry. However, it is worth noting that even with the marriage age legally set at 18, there are still large numbers of underage marriages in India. This demonstrates that even if a law exists, it alone may not be enough to prevent something from happening. The belief that girls should not get married under the age of 18, or 21, has to be integrated throughout society at all levels, from governments to religious leaders to school teachers. Additionally, while increasing the marriage age is a good step, improving the quality of education for girls, preventing dropouts and improving welfare schemes should also be focussed upon. The relationship between the level of education a girl studies to and early marriage is well established. Many women with no education are married before they reach 18, but by promoting quality education and other governmental supportive schemes this may be reduced, potentially more effectively than changing the law. The government could also consider that the presence of women in local government has been suggested to decrease the likelihood of child marriage, and that states with greater enforcement capacity have fewer child marriages.”–Baale Mane, Karnataka
“The legal age for marriage for girls in India had been set at 18, the recent announcement by the PM of India to increase the age of marriage has stirred up debates across the country. The government offers simplistic arguments such as to prevent dropouts from schools, child marriage, etc. Increasing the age of marriage will not address deep entrenched socio-economic issues that young girls face, 18 is the universal age of adulthood. If at 18 you can vote or run a business, how can a state then restrict one from choosing a life partner at 18. It is also not true that after the age of 21 that women will not remain malnourished and their safety will be ensured. Knowledge about sexual and reproductive rights is still illusive for most women in India. Hence a mere increase in the age of marriage will not resolve anything.”–Sahiyar, Gujarat
How do you think this would affect the young women you serve at your NGO?
“The National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-4 from 2015-16 shows that at all India level only 6.6% were married below 15 years (young adolescents), while as many as 20.2% were married between 15-17 years (late adolescence) which is marked improvement from the last decade. Murshidabad, one such district where Jabala works, had 61.23% (UNICEF) of child marriage rate in 2011, highest in West Bengal now down to 42.2%. The survey was carried out among women who were 20-24 years old at the time of NHFS-4. Now, increasing the age, nearly 56% of the girls will come under the violation of the law who got married between the age of 18-20 years. This is going to affect the girls with whom we work as many get married after 18 years and now they will be criminalized and their families will be liable to be tried.
In West Bengal the girls who successfully reach 18 years get a onetime incentive of Rs.25000.00 (approx. $ 400 USD) as marriage support from the government but now further extension of it at this juncture without addressing the causes may make the parents lose interest and the rate of early marriages may increase. There are chances of higher school dropouts as girls may discontinue studies after 18 years due to poverty or lack of family support. The Kanyashree a project of Government of West Bengal supports girls up to 18 years to remain in schools to check child marriage may not be willing to further support a sit will affect government exchequer.”–Jabala Action Research Organization, Bengal
“The older adolescent girls/the young women in Vacha’s programme are already negotiating with parents for not being married off early. Some even cheekily tell them they can make a police complaint if forced to marry. In the last 10 years of our work in different communities, only one girl was married off at 16. The rest have married at 20 or later. The community youth and Vacha girls have worked on stopping early marriages in their area and, a couple of times, Vacha staff has threatened a parent with police action if the girl is married off after being taken to their village.”–Vacha, Maharashtra
“At one end, the increase in age of marriage of girls might give them some negotiation space within their families to be able to continue their education and on the other end, this might take the conversation away from the need for significant investments in the area of empowering adolescents girls. Our biggest fear is that the law might be perceived as the silver bullet diverting the decades of advocacy to invest in the agency of girls.”–Milaan, Uttar Pradesh
“Since Baale Mane is a residential non-profit, our girls are more protected and have less familial pressures on them to get married. The girls at Baale live in the home from a young age, and are accommodated in PG hostels that Baale Mane finds and communicates with when they go into the city for college. While their parents or family members do still stay in touch with many of the girls, and sometimes do try to encourage the girls to come home and get married rather than pursuing higher education, these pressures are reduced compared to other girls from disadvantaged backgrounds. Nonetheless, changing the marriage law from 18 to 21 could help reduce the pressures they feel to get married instead of studying. Some of our girls do feel guilty choosing to study instead of returning home to get married or supporting their families financially. Having a law which clearly states that they should not get married until they are 21 would be a good way to convince their families that they should focus on their education until that age.”–Baale Mane, Karnataka
“Young girls will remain in the house which will make them susceptible to mental and physical violence, as most parents feel that the husband will be the best protector of their daughters. Girls might not be contributing to family income and hence would be considered as a burden. Parents will indulge in illegal activities such as making false documents to show increased age of the girls. There will be even more restrictions on girls.”–Sahiyar, Gujarat
Due to COVID-19, there has been research and data showing a rise in child marriages in India. Do you see this impacting your work with young women?
“There has been an exponential rise in child marriages, the helpline of West Bengal State Commission for Protection of Child Rights received complaints four times higher than normal time during this COVID-19 pandemic. Now, due to restriction in movement, Jabala cannot reach many of the girls. The girls with limited access to phones and schools being closed are subject to violence at home and possible marriages. The high rate of child marriages also give rise to suspicion of ‘Bride Trafficking’ so Jabala has to work on both fronts.
We have intervened and stopped 18 marriages during COVID-19 pandemic in West Bengal and Jharkhand, but failed to stop more than 50 cases where the messages reached us late or we had no option to reach out. Finally, girls are at risk even with our best intentions, the limited resources, in-field problems like poor network, reduced home visits, and depleted staff strength are making things more difficult to intervene, but the effort is on.”–Jabala Action Research Organization, Bengal
“Girls being married off early in COVID-19 times is a real threat. We are on tenterhooks all the time as several families have gone off to their homes in villages and have taken daughters with them. So far we have been in touch with them on cell phones but do not know about the future. Marrying off a daughter in stressful times is due to two main reasons. One is for assuring that someone else is responsible for providing food, clothes and shelter after marriage. The other reason is that in stressful times, as in famine and floods, the lumpans, the kidnappers, the looters all become more brazenly active. The girls can be raped, kidnapped and sold off. Even in normal times, families who are homeless will marry their daughters very early because of the constantly dangerous environment in which they live. During famines even families themselves used to sell their daughters and, in extreme situations, even their wives. Marrying girls off is a relatively easy situation for them. In many poor communities they have the custom of bride price. They are in the process of switching over to dowry but still the customary amount is also attractive.”–Vacha, Maharashtra
“Yes, we are hearing stories of early and forced child marriage in our communities. The social and economic effect of COVID on the lives of the people who are already living below the poverty line is significant. With social norms that define a “girl” as a liability to the family, many families are trying to get them married, in lieu to pass on their “liability” to someone else. There is enough research that shows that in times of pandemic, girls and women become further vulnerable to the evils of social norms built on the pillars of patriarchy and poverty, deepening the gender inequality in the communities.”–Milaan, Uttar Pradesh
“COVID-19 has resulted in an economic downturn, loss of livelihoods and reduced access to childcare protection and social support across India. There is an increase in the number of cases of violence against girls and women, as well as early and child marriages. This news is devastating to those who work in the NGO sector and are striving to prevent child marriages and harm coming to children. However, at Baale Mane specifically, our girls have not been impacted by these issues, due to the residential nature of our NGO. We have managed to continue our support and programs for our girls, and do not believe they have had any additional pressure to get married during COVID-19 times.–Baale Mane, Karanataka
“Due to the lockdown, large parts of the work is focused on ensuring that girls are not lured into leaving schools or getting married, and constant communication has to be maintained with both the parents and the children that is time consuming. Most parents also try to keep the girls away from the organization so that their minds are not changed. It also affects the work that we have been doing for so long protecting women’s rights, if such incidents increase, the impact of the organization will reduce and there will be a loss of trust.”–Sahiyar, Gujarat
Early, forced child marriage is already a challenge that young girls face in India. From negotiating to be educated, to stopping their own early, forced marriages, Shadhika works with young women who face these challenges daily. Changing this law will only bring a new set of challenges to the NGO’s Shadhika partners with. Even though the restlessness continues, in the midst of a pandemic, lockdown and changing of laws, our partner NGO’s continue to push forward to ensure that their young women, our young women, can be independent and choose their own future.Read more