The Indian government has cleared 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 a “real disaster”.
The decision to raise the age was made during a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, the reports said. Currently, the minimum age of marriage for men is 21 and 18 for women.
Following cabinet approval, the government is likely to introduce an amendment to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, and consequently bring amendments to the Special Marriage Act and personal laws such as the Hindu Marriage Act, 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 daughters and sisters”.
“To save the daughters from malnutrition, it is necessary that they are married at the right age,” Modi had said.
Earlier this year, hundreds of girls from the northern state of Haryana, which has one of the lowest gender ratios of females to males among Indian states, had written to Modi, urging him to raise the marriage age 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 looked into. “As India progresses further, opportunities open up for women to pursue higher education and careers,” she had said.
“There are imperatives of lowering MMR (maternal mortality rate) as well as improvement of nutrition levels. The entire issue about the age of a girl entering motherhood needs to be seen in this light,” she said as she appointed a task force to look into the matter.
The high-level task force – which had officials from health, law, and women and child development ministries – backed the proposal, recommending that a woman must be at least 21 at the time of her first pregnancy.
According to a 2017 United Nations report, India was struggling to stop child marriages and improve the health of its mothers. The report said as many as 27 percent of Indian girls were married before they turned 18.
‘Disaster for women’
Ranjana Kumari, director of New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research, said she welcomed the government’s decision, adding that she wants the marriage age for both genders to be the same.
“I welcome the decision. Now the responsibility of the government and political parties should be to start working on changing the mindset in society because it is not going to happen just by enacting a law,” Kumari told Al Jazeera.
“We need to ensure that girls complete their education, they should be into work if they are wanting to work so there is an employment opportunity which they were missing.”
However, feminists and women’s rights activists slammed the move, saying it is going to be a “disaster for women”.
“It is going to be [a] disaster if they are going to hold all marriages before 21 as invalid,” prominent activist and women’s rights lawyer Flavia Agnes told Al Jazeera.
“Even now, so many girls are getting married even before 18. They are getting pregnant at the age of 13, 14 and 15. Now you are going to increase it to 21, it’s going to be a real disaster.”
In rural areas, Agnes said, girls are married off at an early age. “The parents do not want to keep them at home because of the danger of either rape or elopement.”
In response, Kumari said “radical feminist groups” have been opposing raising the marriage age for women “from the beginning”.
“I don’t think it is a disaster. I think it is an opportunity but the only issue is that it needs to be properly campaigned and awareness needs to be built in the community and society to accept this as a norm,” she said. “This is the best way to do away with the child marriage.”
Activist and Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) politician Kavita Krishnan also believes the cabinet’s decision to raise the marriage age of women is “very wrong” and “problematic”.
“It is a move basically intended to control women’s autonomy even further. Already women’s right to marry by their own choices has been attacked and now it will increase even further because it will get legal sanction,” she told Al Jazeera
Krishnan said it is the young women’s autonomy which is under “maximum attack” in India.
“I believe 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 does,” she said.