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Raising the “legal” age of marriage in India: Who’s asking the girls?

What do young people think about the Government’s proposal to increase the minimum age of marriage for girls from 18 to 21 years?

“The government can keep engaging in these discussions about making the age of marriage ‘x’ or ‘y’… but who’s asking the girls?” – Rajasthan

Mamta is a young achiever. An active member of the children’s and then adolescent girls’ group in her village in Rajasthan, 19-year-old Mamta successfully stopped her own child marriage. She is now helping other girls by speaking out against the practice. She trained as a grassroots football coach, has worked for the last two years in a health project run by NGO, Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti (MJAS), and is about to start studying for her Masters degree.

None of this would have been possible if she had married as a child.

Today, countless girls like Mamta across the country struggle to explore and grow their potential – both before and after marriage.

India has seen a steady decline in the rate of child marriage from 54% in 2005-06 to 27% in 2015-16 (NFHS data). Yet, despite a law that bans marriage for girls under 18, we continue to have the highest absolute number of child brides in the world – more than 15 million.

Government proposal to increase the age of marriage

In June 2020, the Ministry of Women and Child Development set up a Task Force to examine the correlation between the age of marriage and motherhood – particularly maternal mortality rate and nutrition – with a mandate to provide recommendations for a legislative response by the end of July 2020. Part of the plan proposed increasing the minimum age of marriage for girls from 18 to 21, with the goal of delaying when girls would have their first child.

The Task Force invited prominent academics, legal experts, and leaders of civil society organisations to engage in discussions. But one key group remained invisible: those who would be most impacted, the young people of India.

Young people and civil society respond

Ninety-six civil society organisations from 15 states across India came together to initiate a process that would ensure the voices of young people of India were heard by the Task Force. The “Young Voices” National Working Group engaged with almost 2500 young people aged between 12 and 22, from mostly impoverished rural areas, urban slums and minority communities, to understand and ultimately amplify their views on the proposed change. We also facilitated four young women to depose directly before the Task Force via a webinar.

The variety of responses highlighted their nuanced understanding of the complex issue of marriage as an institution. A common thread emerged: young people’s lack of choices, and the ability to have aspirations and make decisions on the very matters which impact their lives the most – marriage, relationships, education and career.

A charter of 19 demands was submitted to the Task Force, including: the right to education for longer; work opportunities that are safe and near to homes and villages; incentives that enable girls to realise their aspirations – including a delay in the age of marriage, and; comprehensive sexuality education in schools and communities, and access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.

We recognise the root causes of early and child marriage as poverty, norms around centrality of marriage, patriarchy and control over girls’ sexuality. A law to change the age of marriage does not address all these causes. We urge the Task Force to recommend comprehensive interventions. If the age of marriage is increased without addressing the root causes it will harm us. – “Young Voices” charter of demands

What did the young people of India say?

Through the consultation we heard that some young people were concerned that just increasing the age of marriage without addressing other aspects of their realities could actually increase the number of child marriages and increase gender bias. For example, if parents were expected to support their daughters for longer, they may marry them off in secret, or with forged documents, because of poverty.

“Just getting married does not mean we have to bear children. This decision is between the two partners, which can be delayed also, this decision should be based on choice and maturity not just age. The question also is, who is going to decide ‘maturity’?” – Rajasthan

Some others felt, however, that they may have more opportunities: to learn,  start a career and become independent before getting married.

But all of the young people we spoke to were clear. At a time when COVID-19 is closing down opportunities and throwing their families into economic crisis, the young people of India want the Government to channel its efforts into poverty eradication and restarting educational and employment opportunities for them, rather than into changing laws. They want to be heard – and taken seriously – by their families, community leaders and the Government itself. They want the confidence to share and act on their decisions.

The full report is available in our Resource Centre in English and Hindi.

Further information

Young people’s responses across the board highlighted:

  • Innate understanding of how power is skewed against them within and outside the institution of marriage
  • Lack of choices, limited ability to have aspirations and the power to realise them
  • Lack of control over critical decisions—marriage, relationships, education and career
  • Poverty, poor educational and employment opportunities all affect girls’ agency in India
  • Girls are seen as a burden, and a liability for their parents. Early marriage can seem like a viable option to parents and often to young people themselves
  • Concern that young people are criminalised when they go against social norms and have consensual sexual relationships
  • Fear that increase in legal age of marriage would criminalise more young people and increase unsafe abortions