Mumbai: The Prohibition Of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which seeks to raise the legal age of marriage for Indian women from 18 to 21 years, was sent to a parliamentary standing committee. The Bill aims to eradicate child marriage and bring about parity in the marriageable age for men and women.

While the raising of marriageable age for women should, on the face of it, have a positive effect on eradicating child marriage, many public policy experts, particularly those working on gender policy, seem to think otherwise. We spoke with Poonam Muttreja, executive director of the Population Foundation of India (PFI), to understand these concerns about the Bill. Muttreja has worked for over 40 years in development and has founded and headed policy and advocacy non-profits.

Edited excerpts:

What are the social-economic constructs that raising the marriageable age for women would address?

The first should be to change social norms around not just age at marriage, but around educating girls and [addressing] their health, by understanding all the consequences of early marriage. Second, it should address the new aspirations of both parents and daughters. Their aspirations have changed. Girls do not wish to marry early, and nor do their parents [want this]. Parents today wish to educate their girls and boys. However, if social norms like dowry continue, poor parents, in particular, have no choice but to get their daughters married early.

It is among the poorest that child marriage is most common, because of three or four main issues. First, we need to address dowry. People get their daughters married at a very young age because they feel that the young will have to pay less dowry, and that is true. So it's an economic issue. Second, the quality of education is not only poor, but [third], given the distance to schools, their girls are not safe. The fact is a large number of young girls go through sexual abuse, including from teachers. It's not just a phenomenon in India but all over the world. Girls are not only not safe going to school, but they also are not safe at home either. Parents know that better than anybody else. So, that's another reason they get their children married early.

The fourth concern that we need to address is the lack of jobs for girls. In fact, there's a decrease in the labour force, especially the male-female ratio. Unemployment for young people is a huge crisis in India. Parents know that. And today, thanks to the media which reaches--in many languages and many ways--the most illiterate and uneducated, and the most remote geographical areas, people's aspirations have changed, but also they know what is happening in the country. So however much the government may deny that jobs are decreasing for young people, parents know that the job market is a tough one. Thus they feel, 'why educate the girl if she's not going to get a job, she may as well get married at a low cost'.

So are you saying that in theory, it's good to raise the marriageable age, but in practice, it's very difficult to implement for all these reasons, and therefore this law may not be appropriate at this time?

Law is a necessary but not sufficient condition for anything. You must have a law for traffic, and though most people will not follow that law, that does not mean laws shouldn't be made. Law is a necessary condition but not sufficient for change. And then this law, especially, is hugely problematic. For many reasons, it will not work. It hasn't worked in the past. For more than four decades, we've had 18 as the [minimum] age at marriage [for women]. But if you look at the age group between 18 and 24 in the National Family Health Survey-5, which is the latest data, one-fourth of girls continue to get married below age 18.

The law is also misused. I'm all for a secular increase in age at marriage, and it's already happening, but not because of the law. It's happening because of the change in aspirations. Second, why 21 years? Why not 18 for both women and men? One of the reasons the government is giving is that they want to bring about gender equality. We'd like to support [union minister for women and child development] Smiti Irani in whatever she needs to do for gender equality. We will drop everything and work with her. But, if gender equality is the goal, why not bring down the [marriageable] age of boys to age 18?

From a public policy sequencing point of view, would it not be logical to first raise the [marriageable] age and then work on all these other important issues?

There are problems with that. We should not increase the age at marriage through legal means but in practical, real ways. There's a survey by Partners for Law in Development, where they've looked at all the cases where laws have intervened because a girl was married below the age of 18, and 65% of the cases filed under the existing child marriage law related to elopement. These cases were filed by disapproving parents who often, despite the consent of the girls, male partners of their choice were punished as criminals, and the girls were locked up and married to someone else. The proposed legislation would increase the number of young couples who are vulnerable to such misuse of the law.

Second, if girls can vote at age 18, can enter contracts and other legal [arrangements], how do you justify that a girl at age 18 doesn't have agency? Now what you're doing is increasing her lack of freedom from 18 to 21 years, when parents and others can misuse the law to settle scores.

The challenge is not just with parents when it comes to preventing child marriage. Karminder Kaur, a child protection officer from Haryana who is on our advisory committee, always tells me, "Whenever I had to take the police to stop a child marriage, even of a 10-year-old girl, they'll say, 'Why are you spoiling the future of the poor?'". A large number of the poor, and even the police, see child marriage as a solution, while we see it as a problem. So we must accept we have a lot of work to do in changing social norms around age at marriage, and also legal norms. When did we ever arrest a pandit or mullah who performed the marriage of a girl below 18 years? Never.

Can't this issue of elopement be separately addressed legally, so that it's not so simple for parents to file a case saying our child has eloped? Also, from a public policy point of view, the response would still be to raise the marriageable age while the Ministry of Women and Child Development works on all the issues that you've mentioned, including raising awareness, ensuring that parents don't marry their children off early, or focusing on the larger economic factors.

That is the problem. If we were doing that, our response would be different. We are going by past experience, and we are going by what we anticipate. And the anticipation is that the government is going to say we will increase the age at marriage. So they will put it as one more myth and misconception that things are happening in India. Because we are manufacturing data today, we all know that. Once the law is passed, we are seeing how things happen in India. Not only today, [but] before also. It's not to do with any single government. In our country, I've seen for decades that we make a law or roll out a scheme and then we say we've solved the problem. We're a scheming society; we bring a scheme and say the problem is solved. Then we get myopic, we close our eyes and say that we've solved this problem, and we don't need to do anything else. That's the problem in our country, that by enacting a law saying that the girl's age at marriage is now 21, we will not do other things. The government is not talking about doing other things.

Secondly, the government is doing something which takes away the freedom of girls, should they wish to marry before 21. And I think freedom for girls is important, should they decide to marry early between 18 and 21. All the earlier [child] marriages were underground. People are getting the girl married by giving the wrong age. Nobody says their daughter is not 18 [at marriage]. That's another reason a lot of birth certificates are not even [collected] by parents. Apart from ignorance, there is also a plan. So now you will have so many more marriages, especially [of girls] between 18 and 21 years, going underground that it will be unbelievable.

Lastly, we know that sexual debut is earlier than 18 years for many girls and boys. But now, it's [been made] 21. Nobody wants to give a contraceptive to an unmarried girl or a boy. Are we saying they will not remain sexually active till 21? You expect everyone to be sexually inactive because sex is only considered legitimate in our country within marriage? There are so many sociological problems for young people already and you're increasing them by three years.

What are the examples that we can look at from other countries, of similar social environments as India? And what's the long-term solution?

First, if you want to go closest to home, in no Asian country is the age at marriage above 18 years. Sri Lanka increased the age at marriage phenomenally by putting girls in school and then keeping them in school by making quality education available in public education facilities--not only in private--by making it safe, by putting toilets in schools, improving the infrastructure, creating greater job opportunities, and [promoting] more gender equality. Also, they don't have dowry. India is very peculiar where we have the dowry system, which, in fact, has increased. The poorest people used to give Rs 1 lakh as dowry. Now, one cleaner in our building, for instance, had to pay Rs 15 lakh for his daughter's dowry. He partly blames me, because he wanted to get her married at age 12, and I pushed him and pushed him and she got married at age 16. But by then, there was inflation. So, instead of eradicating dowry, it has increased. So for us to say we'll eradicate [child marriage] through higher age at marriage is unbelievable.

Let me talk about other countries. As I said, in no Asian country is the age at marriage more than 18. In fact, the only country where the age at marriage is above 18, at 20 years, is Japan, a totally developed country. No one has understood why they made 20 the age at marriage. In America or England, their age at marriage is already so high that there is no [legal] limit for age at marriage. You can get married at any age. These are good examples, of how developed countries as well as countries closer to home and with similar economic status, were able to increase the age at marriage through education and more gender equality. None of them have these coercive [tactics] that we have.

We are also never able to deal squarely, on legal terms, with parents who harass and misuse age at marriage to not allow girls to have the freedom to choose. About 40% of the girls who get married have arranged marriages; in villages, this is close to or more than 90%. Do you know that the girl's worst nightmare close to their marriage, for those who've never even met--leave alone chosen--their partners, is what are they going to experience? What is this person going to be like? Is he going to be violent? Is he going to be sexually abusive? This is what a girl faces. Marriage is a very precious, important landmark, along with others like getting a job or graduating. But marriage is very difficult to change, unlike a job which can be changed. Women have so little freedom and we want to postpone their having freedom, if at all they have any, by another three years?

Is there a middle path? Could we both have the law and also create pressure to ensure that the other issues including women's empowerment are also speeded up in an objective, quantifiable way?

On the legal aspect as I mentioned earlier, if you want gender equality, make the age at marriage for boys also 18. Then, let's make higher education compulsory, just like we did for middle schools, which increased the age at marriage phenomenally. It is access to educational opportunities that increases the age at marriage.

Then, just as we put toilets in homes with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, we need a very swift [programme] to put not only toilets in 100% of schools, but also provide access to sanitary pads, and [improve] girl's menstrual health and hygiene.

Three, safety should be a major concern. We have to ensure that our girls are safe going to school. If you don't have school buses, there are those 108 ambulances everywhere. Find such creative ways. Let the district magistrates manage a plan for every district on making it safe for girls to go to school.

Finally, we have to do skill development in areas where girls can get jobs, not just getting them skilled or educated but without jobs. We can do that in a firefighting mode, as India has been working on skilling. When there is a 40% shortage of nurses in the public health system across the country, why can't we have more trainings for nurses at different levels, and not just the five-year training? We can have assistant nurses. Now that we know from NFHS-5 that India is an ageing society, increasingly we are going to need more health support, so let's train health assistants.

We have not paid the kind of attention we need to for creating jobs, not just for graduates, but for girls and boys who may have only finished school, because we know girls who finish school do not have access to jobs. So I'm not talking about skilling for those with bachelor's and master's degrees; I'm talking about creating jobs and skilling opportunities that should be combined with market potential. Whatever skilling we do, we should ensure that there are job or production opportunities, and where there is growth [potential] in markets. Bangladesh has done it. It has created employment opportunities for girls, even when their gross domestic product was so much less than all of India, even of our poorest states. Now, they're doing better than some of our states. So let's look at other countries where quick reforms [helped].

Finally, change social norms through behaviour-change communication, use the media effectively to change social norms around the age of marriage, and empower girls, giving them the opportunity to decide if and when they wish to get married, and to whom.

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