As the Government has conveyed the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill 2021, which seeks to increase the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years to a Parliamentary Standing Committee for inspection, representatives of minority communities have raised concerns on how the change will have an impact on the personal laws in the nation.
While majority-minority communities haven’t opposed the increase of the age of marriage, they state that personal laws have certain protections under the Constitution. According to the draft Bill, the proposed law will be applied to all communities and, once it’s enacted, will replace the existing marriage and personal laws.
Dr.ShernazCama who is the director of Jiyo Parsi which is a nodal organization that represents the Parsi community before the Government, states that the move does not affect the community in which “men and women get married late”. But what needs to be inspected, she further adds, is the viable changes in personal law.
“Women in the Parsi community do not get married under the age of 28-30 years, and men don’t usually marry under 35 years. This is much more than the national mean age of 22-24 years… (But) personal laws are protected under the Constitution. This must be studied by the standing committee, which must predominantly have women members,” stated Cama, who is even the director of UNESCO’s Parsi-Zoroastrian project PARZOR.
“I personally don’t think anyone has the right to interfere on the issue of when an individual can or cannot get married if that individual has reached adulthood,’’ she stated.
Father Savari Muthu who is the spokesperson of the Delhi Archdiocese, states that the Christian community welcomes the Government’s move but even warns of the proposed law’s effect on marginalized societies in rural areas.
“We believe that the rule of law of the land must supersede Canon law… In any case, within the Catholic as well as other communities, girls are getting married later. But this is primarily in urban areas. The concern is the rural areas, especially marginalized communities such as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes,” he stated.
“The fear is that they will continue to get married younger and hide it. It is also possible that the new law may be misused to harass these communities and young people. These are concerns that the Government must look into before the Bill becomes law,’’ he further said.
The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), which has decided to speak out against the proposed law, states it as “very irrational”.
“This is not just about personal laws but also looking at what actually 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 off. When women and men are given the right to vote at 18 years, they can take any decision independently when they reach adulthood. How can the Government stop them from getting married?’’ stated Niaz Ahmad Farooqui who is the general secretary of Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind, and AIMPLB member.
“The Government also does not have the right to interfere with personal laws, which is the fundamental right of a community,’’ he stated.
“We are definitely not advocating that girls get married younger. Before, they would even be married off at 12-13 years — we definitely don’t want that. We are also not opposing the move because we believe it has been made against personal laws, but what is the scientific reasoning behind it? If a girl is too undernourished to get married at 18, how does this suddenly change at 21? The issue isn’t the age of marriage then, but poverty,” Farooqui further added.
The data from the 5th edition of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) presents that 23.3 percent of women aged 20-24 years were married under the age of 18 as compared to 26.8 percent in NFHS-4. The recent data even show that 6.8 percent of women were pregnant between 15-19 years as compared to 7.9 percent in NFHS 4.
According to the data of NFHS-4, the median age of marriage for women in the nation between the ages of 25 to 49 years, is 19.8 in urban areas and 18.1 in rural areas. The lowest median age recorded for women in this category among Hindus is 18.5 followed closely by Muslims at 18.6 years. The median age of marriage among Buddhists is 19.2, Sikhs 20.9, Jains 21.2, and Christians 21.6.
NFHS-4 data even show that 28% of women aged 18-29 and 17% of men aged 21-29 marry before they reach the legal minimum age of marriage.