Let me state at the outset that the proposed enactment is a potent game-changer for the young girls of this nation and requires united support to implement.

In these dystopian, acutely polarized political times there is every danger of the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. That is exactly what is happening to the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill introduced in the Lok Sabha on 21 December 2021, seeking to raise without exception, across the country, the legal age for marriage of girls from 18 years to 21, bringing it on par with the 21 years already mandated for boys. It also extends the girl’s right to repudiate an underage marriage from two years to five years after attaining majority—creating a more effective deterrent to any person marrying an underage girl and a weapon in the hands of young traumatized brides.
The BJP may have fancied that the numerical symmetry of date and subject would add astrological heft to securing easy passage for this measure. But alas, it was not to be. The Bill has been moved to a Standing Committee, where controversy further dogs.
Let me state at the outset that the proposed enactment is a potent game-changer for the young girls of this nation and requires united support to implement. It holds the key to finally deliver to girls their constitutional rights of equality and dignity—by militating the time-space within youth to get more educated, skilled and gain the ability to choose a career, whether as an alternative or an accompaniment to marriage. That is, if legislation is backed by basic facilities for older adolescents provided in mission-mode together with its implementation. The shaping of such a strategy needs to be the major focus of political contestation.
But the political opposition and feminists—united in righteous outrage at the several incidents of right-wing hate-speech and reprehensible actions—did not pause to parse reaction to this particular issue. Far from concentrating on demanding twinning of the amendment with a well-funded Mission for Empowerment of Older Adolescent Girls, they regressed into what can be described only as a mixed hotchpotch of ideological criticism: attack on religious personal laws on one side to Western-human-rights-violation-approach; one segment upholding traditional orthodoxy, another pitching individual choice, even “consensual” teen-sex, questioning the validity of the 18-plus girl being considered a child, even suggesting that parity would be better achieved by reducing the male legal age to 18 years, and hearts bled for the resulting “criminalization” from the extended time to void underage marriages. (I will return to these issues later.)
In point of fact this amendment not only forces society to accord the adolescent girl her due time-span to enhance her development and capabilities, but has far-reaching broader national benefits. National productivity would improve, according to some experts by as much 50% with improved women’s workforce participation—a gender indicator in which India notably lags presently. Increased female age at marriage also has significant impact for downsizing the numbers and time-frame at which India’s population eventually stabilises, as an increased nuptial gap is the only way to ease the inbuilt population-growth momentum because of the very large cohorts in the reproductive arena. A three-year shift would provide valuable breathing space that allows the demographic dividend available from the larger working age-group ratio to dependents to be nurtured to quality. This aspect is particularly important to improve conditions in the poorer eastern, northern and central states economically lagging behind the rest of the nation and where women’s status is markedly lower and maximum number of teen-age marriages and teen-pregnancies occur.
For the first time in over a century’s consistent efforts to steadily raise the marriage age, there is better and widespread public recognition of the imperative for girls to be physically and psychologically mature before marriage. The 2011 Census reported a mean age of effective marriage of 21.2 years—that is a decade ago more than half (52.2%) the girls were already marrying over the age of 21 years, while another 44% were in the legal 18-20 years category and less than 4% below 18. Currently, median female age at marriage is expected to have touched 22 years.
However, the National Health Family Survey 5 (NHFS-5) does reveal that of the 20-24 age group surveyed, nearly 23% were married before 18 years. Indian society has issues of shadi and gauna—a gap between marriage and consummation prevailing in large parts. Not counting that 23% is yet a decline from the 28% of the previous NHFS and a dramatic decline of almost half from NHFS-3.
Till the 7th Five Year Plan (1985-90) when the replacement level fertility goal of 2.1 was first adopted to be achieved by 2000—and which we have arrived at only now—more than 60% of girls in 15-19 age group in UP, Bihar, Rajasthan and MP were being married off; even significant percentages at younger ages. Of the 4.5 million marriages then taking place annually in the country it was estimated that 3 million or two-thirds were those of teenagers or younger. Although the legal age at marriage had been raised to 18 years in 1978—from 15 years after Independence—that was the prevailing situation in the field. So, law is required to set the norm with public advocacy and targeted supportive measures helping to achieve it. The decade following the famous Sarda Act, as the Child Marriage Restraint Act (1929) is known, the age of marriage jumped by 2.4 years in that one decade alone through concerted effort.
In 1978, increase in the marriage age of females to 18 years and boys to 21 years came in the wake of medical research evidencing a second physical growth spurt occurring post-puberty—the interruption of which has dire consequences to the girl’s health and well-being as early marriage happened in the popular belief that puberty made the girl physically ready for motherhood. Post-menarche height and weight increase slightly but more significantly a girl’s internal organs, i.e., the uterus and ovaries develop further in size and weight and the level of serum gonadatropin—the hormone that plays an important role in sexual development and functioning—surges through the teens marking 18 years as the possible threshold for growth-stability. Universally, maternal, infant and child mortality halves from teenage levels when women give birth in their twenties.
Reaching girls to the 18-year-threshold was the major challenge then. Now besides the changed context of the 21st century there is new evidence from neuroscience that the child’s brain grows physically across the teens. It gradually improves in overall size and connectivity continuing to mature and fine tune itself well past 18 years of age into the early 20s. It is, in fact, the last organ to mature; its growth peaking in several respects at 24/25. The most important brain area to become fully “wired up” in adulthood is the front portion of the frontal lobe. Emotional maturity, self-image and judgment are affected until the prefrontal cortex of the brain has fully developed, which is why teenagers can take to risky behaviours and have a harder time regulating their emotions. Yet, strangely, some argue for teenagers to have the right to marry and commit mistakes that can be long-time detrimental to their welfare.
So, to return to the criticism: the validity of terming an 18-year-old a child is self-evident from preceding paragraphs which underline how important it is to protect the 18-year-old from the assault on her body and mind that early marriage—often followed by early motherhood—represents. I would go further to suggest whether the point of adulthood itself does not require re-review and re-definition. Was the world-wide lowering of voting-age to 18—when children are barely out of school and yet to take personal responsibility of their lives—a well thought-through change or a concession to the powerful marketing forces creating a new lucrative demographic? Perhaps, that matter itself requires a deeper look instead of becoming the precedent to lower right of access to everything—from driving cars to liquor to marriage.
As for the charge of any communal sleight-of-hand on personal laws here, it needs to be recognised that the changes uniformly affect all laws—Hindu and secular as much as minority personal laws. Besides, shouldn’t progressive forces back the need for a Uniform Civil Code that accords women equal rights, which notably lag in nearly all personal and customary laws? Uniform Civil Code was, in fact, a demand of the women’s movement throughout the 1970s and 1980s, jettisoned only by influential movement leaders when some political affiliations conflicted with it in the 1990s.
In point of fact the bigger challenge to improve the age at marriage for the girl-child falls on the predominant Hindu component of society, which has the lowest median age denominator of all major groups—18.5 years and customary festival rites like Akshaya Tritya where mass child marriages still take place. The Christian and Jain communities are already well ahead past the 21-year post, the Sikhs almost there. Even the figure for the Muslim denomination has a sliver-thin advantage over that of the Hindu denomination: a median age of 18.6 years, while Jammu and Kashmir enjoys the distinction of the highest median age at marriage in the country, 25.1 years, and Kerala with a very large Muslim population is yet another state that leads the league.
It is well documented that education is the best accelerator to increase the female age at marriage—12 years of completed schooling zooms marriage age well past 22 years; urban settings add a two-year advantage over the rural; the wealthiest families score a three-year difference from the poorest. So, the most doable strategy lies in massively gearing up the secondary school with vocational training components, plus higher education to effectively reach, retain and empower the adolescent girl-child, while duly ensuring her safety and security in this process. Such a mission would enable every girl to transform not only her destiny but that of the nation too.
Let the Opposition unite to force such a commitment—with earmarked funds to back it—as a part of the legislation amendment process and the coming decade could repeat the post Sarda act phenomenon.
There is a precious baby here; it mustn’t get mixed with the other dirty laundry that needs washing.
Rami Chhabra is a media veteran, who pioneered the first feminist columns in the national press. She has served the country in various capacities, including in GoI and as Member, National Population Commission.