EVEN IF the government has sent the Child Marriage Prohibition (Amendment) Bill 2021, which seeks to raise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21, to a standing parliamentary committee for consideration, representatives of minority communities raised concerns about how the change will affect personal laws in the country.
Although most minority communities have not opposed raising the age of marriage, they point out that personal laws are constitutionally protected. According to the bill, the proposed law will apply to all communities and, when enacted, will replace existing laws on marriage and persons.
Dr Shernaz Cama, director of Jiyo Parsi, a nodal organization that represents the Parsi community before the government, says the move does not affect the community in which “men and women marry late”. But what must be scrutinized, she adds, are the possible changes in human rights.
“Women in the Parsi community do not marry before the age of 28-30, and men generally do not marry before the age of 35. This is much more than the national average age of 22-24 years … (But) personal laws are protected by the Constitution. This needs to be studied by the standing committee, which should be made up predominantly of women, ”said Cama, who is also director of the Parsi-Zoroastrian project at UNESCO PARZOR.
“Personally, I don’t think anyone has the right to intervene on the issue of when a person can or cannot get married if that person has reached adulthood,” she said.
Father Savari Muthu, spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Delhi, said the Christian community welcomes the government’s decision but warns of the impact of the proposed law on marginalized societies in rural areas.
“We believe that the rule of law of the country must supplant canon law… In any case, within the Catholic community as in others, the girls marry later. But it is mainly in urban areas. The concern is with rural areas, especially marginalized communities such as scheduled castes and tribes, ”he said.
“The fear is that they will continue to marry younger and hide it. It is also possible that the new law will be misused to harass these communities and young people. These are concerns the government must address before the bill becomes law, ” he said.
The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), which spoke out against the bill, called it “very irrational”.
“It’s not just about personal laws, but also about what really benefits women. The biggest requirement in India is the safety and security of women. And when a girl has to be kept at home, her safety becomes the responsibility of the parents, which is why she is often married. When women and men get the right to vote at 18, they can make any decision independently when they reach adulthood. How can the government prevent them from getting married? ” Said Niaz Ahmad Farooqui, secretary general of Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind and member of the AIMPLB.
“The government also has no right to interfere with personal laws, which is a community’s basic right,” he said.
“We are certainly not advocating that girls marry younger. Before, they were even married at 12-13 years old – we sure don’t want that. We also don’t oppose this decision because we believe it was made against personal laws, but what is the scientific reasoning behind it? If a girl is too undernourished to marry at 18, how does that suddenly change at 21? So the problem is not the age of marriage, but the poverty, ”said Farooqui.
Mohsin Taqvi, Imam Jama Masjid (Kashmir Gate), says that even in the Muslim community, girls rarely marry before the legal age.
“It’s not like it used to be when girls had to get married young. Girls very rarely marry before they are 21-22 years old. So in this sense, there is no problem with increasing the age of marriage for women. However, the government should still conduct extensive consultations with community leaders before passing the law, ” the imam said.
Data from the fifth edition of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) shows that 23.3% of women aged 20 to 24 were married before the age of 18, compared with 26.8 % in NFHS-4. The latest data also shows that 6.8% of women were pregnant between the ages of 15 and 19, compared to 7.9% in the NFHS 4.
According to the NFHS-4, the median age of marriage for Indian women aged 25 to 49 is 19.8 years in urban areas and 18.1 years in rural areas. The lowest median age for women in this category among Hindus is 18.5, followed closely by Muslims at 18.6. The median age of marriage for Buddhists is 19.2, Sikhs 20.9, Jains 21.2, and Christians 21.6.
Data from the NFHS-4 also shows that 28% of women aged 18-29 and 17% of men aged 21-29 marry before reaching the legal minimum age for marriage.