The legal age for marriage for women in India is now 21 years – the same as men, as the Union Cabinet passed the proposal to raise the age from 18 years. This comes after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his 2020 Independence Day speech, said the government will reconsider and set the right age of marriage for women in India.
Nirmala Sitharaman, the Finance Minister, during the 2020-21 Budget speech had said that women’s age of marriage was increased from 15 years to 18 years in 1978 through amendment of the erstwhile Sharda Act of 1929. “As India progresses further, opportunities open up for women to pursue higher education and careers,” she said. “There are imperatives of lowering MMR as well as improvement of nutrition levels. Entire issue about the age of a girl entering motherhood needs to be seen in this light.”
It should be noted that Section 5(iii) of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 had set 18 years as the minimum age for the bride and 21 for the groom. The Special Marriage Act, 1954 and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 also prescribed 18 and 21 years as the minimum age of consent for marriage for women and men, respectively.
The marriage age increase is based on government think tank NITI Aayog’s recommendations, by Centre’s taskforce, in December 2020. The taskforce, headed by Jaya Jaitly, was constituted to examine matters pertaining to age of motherhood; imperatives of lowering maternal mortality rate (MMR); improvement of nutritional levels; and related issues.
Jaitly told The Indian Express that the taskforce’s reasoning behind the recommendations was never one of population control. “Recent data released by the National Family Health Survey have already shown that the Total Fertility Rate is decreasing and the population is under control. The idea behind it is the empowerment of women.”
She said they had feedback from 16 universities and engaged over 15 NGOs to reach out to the young people, particularly in rural and marginalized communities, such as particular districts in Rajasthan where child marriage is quite prevalent. “Feedback was taken across religions, and from urban and rural areas, equally. Across the board, the feedback we received from young adults is that the age of marriage should be 22-23 years. There have been objections from certain quarters, but we felt it was more important to be guided by the target group.”
The taskforce recommended a comprehensive public awareness campaign in an effort to encourage social acceptance of the decision. It also recommended that sex education be formalized and introduced in the school curriculum. Furthermore, training of women in polytechnic institutes, skills and business training and livelihood enhancement has also been recommended as means to ensure that an increase in marriageable age can be implemented.