Raising the age of marriage for girls in India from 18 to 21 is a not a simple step that will bring all-encompassing goodness in terms of health and development. The claims of the government that this is in the interest of the girl child are not convincing, given that little concern has been shown about a host of other related health issues.
For instance, the latest round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5 for 2019-20) tells us that anaemia among children as well as adults, men as well as women, pregnant as well as non-pregnant women, has increased over numbers recorded in NFHS-4 (2015-16). Consider that 57% of all Indian women in the age 15-49 were reported anaemic in NFHS-5 over 53.1% reported anaemic in NFHS-4. This points to the work that is required to be done in the area of women and child development, and raises many questions on how and why anaemia has worsened over the years. Several other indicators have improved but not all is well. The number of women in the 20-24 age group who were married before the age of 18 has declined from 26.8% (NFHS-4) to 23.3% (NFHS-5). But this also shows how much still needs to be done to implement the requirement of the age of marriage to be 18.
In the midst of these challenges, the proposal to raise the age to 21 means the government is driving into more areas of regulation and policing that are contentious. If all that development required was the passing of a law, then India would have been a developed country by now, given the plethora of laws that governments have passed over the years. Each of these laws in some way expands the role of the State, and in a poor country like India, it has the downside of State coercive power being wielded against the weakest class of citizens. Worse, there is already societal pressure in the area that restrains freedom and stops young girls and boys from discovering life on their own, bringing in aspects of moral policing and State intervention on some pretext or another.
In a city like Mumbai, there have been situations where people have raised objections, the police intervened and a kind of campaign was run to stop couples spending time together. People visiting a quiet, green spot have run into moral vigilantes. It has happened in popular public places like Marine Drive in South Mumbai where the police have been called in to clear the promenade. It has happened on the approach road to the Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link that allows Mumbaikars to drive over the sea and zip about their business. Colleges don’t like holding of hands, parks often offer trouble rather than tranquillity to young couples and many parents are still uncomfortable if boys and girls spend some time socialising even in larger groups.
If this is the state of affairs in a cosmopolitan megapolis like Mumbai, imagine what transpires in the interiors of India, where prejudice and moral norms can be overwhelming. Social media has many images and videos of young couples being beaten up, the girl dragged away to be taught a lesson at home and the boy warned never to be seen again. In this climate, the little agency that girls might have, whenever and wherever they are in a position to do so, gets taken away by this new proposed law because the act becomes illegal and submission to a paternalistic household becomes more ingrained. Think of this girl as being forced to continue to be under the care of her parents and brothers, doing their bidding and unable to make a choice.
In many Indian families and for a variety of reasons, a daughter is looked upon as the property of the husband and his family, waiting to be sent off – the concept captured in the words ‘paraya dhan’. Will this legal raising of the age of marriage stop the family, or will they not still look for ways to seal an alliance and then explore ways in which the girl will work with more controls and walk a tricky balance while she waits to get married and move to the husband’s house, as tradition decrees? Will this reduce demands for dowry and allow the girl child to continue her education? Or will it torment her as she is pushed into preparing for her matrimonial home? None of these are settled questions. The fact remains that the law against dowry has not stopped the practise – anecdotally speaking, it may have even got worse in recent times.
What is not seen in this change is that the State has suddenly given itself more powers to intervene in families, in personal choices and brought the discourse of development into conflict – one more of the many situations when conflict seems to be the most favoured method of negotiating an issue or effecting change. This is the biggest blow and the greatest risk to the idea of human development. When a large number of people do not trust the action and are not sold on the idea of change that has aspects of being intrusive, then it is best to defer the action. Discuss, debate, and set the stage for change rather than rush into effecting the change.
It is important to raise the self-esteem of girls, to support them to make their own decisions rather than force them into a tyrannical legal system where a new phase of their life begins with a police case or a court room.
(The writer is the Managing Editor of The Billion Press) (Syndicate: The Billion Press)