In India, the government has proposed legislation to raise the lowest age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years old.
This will bring it to the same age as men. Government officials say this will help women. But women activists say this will do little to solve the societal issues in India that result in girls younger than 18 being married.
The government says the aim is to provide equal opportunity to women. It says a higher marriage age would permit women to complete their education, have better employment opportunities, have a better mentality and establish sex equality.
“In a democracy, we are 75 years late in providing equal rights to men and women to enter into matrimony,” said Smriti Irani. He is the minister of women and child development. He was speaking in parliament on December 21.
The proposed law would be a major change in a country where studies show about 50 percent marry before turning 21.
Some women’s groups have supported the bill. “Completing her education and employability ensures a better life for a girl than being dependent on her husband all her life,” Ranjana Kumari told VOA. She is the director of the New Delhi-based Center for Social Research.
The government says the proposed change also considers the health of women who become mothers at a young age. Early marriages are linked to higher chances of death in very young children and low life expectancy, especially among rural women.
Some experts believe the proposal might have harmful effects because it does not answer the real causes of early marriage. The real causes include poverty, males favored in families, and a lack of educational opportunities. These experts fear if these causes are not solved, an age change could do more harm than good.
They point out that although marriages for girls under 18 are currently illegal, child marriages are still a major problem for India. The National Family Health Survey done in 2019 to 2021 found that as many as 25 percent of women ages 20 to 24 were married before they turned 18.
Some women activists call the bill an empty effort that will not help women. They say that the government should improve educational opportunities, improve nutrition and healthcare, and ensure safety and security for women. Others say that the increased age will criminalize the lives of many women who were forced to marry by their families at an early age.
Annie Raja is the general secretary of The National Federation of Indian Women. She said if the aim is to create sex equality, then the government should reduce the age of marriage for men to 18.
Others argue that if a girl of 18 is old enough to vote or be treated as an adult if she does something criminal, there is no reason why she cannot marry at that age.
Answering such criticism, supporters of the bill say that this move should not be seen as a problem, but as an opportunity.
The proposal has been welcomed by hundreds of young girls, who have been campaigning in the northern Indian state of Haryana to raise the marriage age for women.
“It’s a huge step forward,” said 17-year-old Prachi Chauhan, one of the campaigners. “Such a law will help take away societal and parental pressure to get married soon after turning 18 that many girls face.”
I’m Gregory Stachel.
Anjana Pasricha reported this story for Voice of America. Gregory Stachel adapted it for VOA Learning English. Susan Shand was the editor.
Words in This Story
society – n. people in general thought of as living together in organized communities with shared laws, traditions, and values
opportunity – n. an amount of time or a situation in which something can be done
matrimony – n. the state of being married
ensure – v. to make (something) sure, certain, or safe