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How is the marriageable age set low for Women a matter of Injustice?

Marriageable Age

When are you planning to get married?, But eventually, you will have to settle down, right?, You have graduated now, you should probably get married, your degrees don’t matter, you eventually need to get married. Hailing from Indian society, most girls aren’t very alienated from these questions and phrases. We’ve come across a number of relatives badgering young girls and their parents to get them married as soon as they reach their early 20s. If to conduct a survey, it would be certain that nearly 80% of girls from Indian households have been hearing things similar to these, from a very young age.

Marriage was socially constructed with the intention of fulfilling economic and social needs, i.e., legal ownership of property and to have legal heirs to the acquired property, but with time, the element of love and companionship was added, however, this element was never considered in Indian societies. Marriages in Indian societies were rooted in patriarchy and thus women were considered as properties to be given off. Thus, with time marriage became inevitable for women. A woman choosing to avoid marriage or marrying late is considered audacious or something that is a bold move. In fact, the concept of marriage is so ingrained into their psyches, that girls, right from the start are convinced/forced- as in most cases, to prepare themselves mentally and physically to get married at a very young age, sometimes, even before attaining majority. 

Why was the marriageable age set low for women?

Child marriage in India was an extensively practiced event and the norm evolved where girls were married off to men twice and thrice older their age, and it became conventional for women to get married earlier to men. It was so normalized that it wasn’t even appalling to see girls aged 5, 2 and even 1 being given into marriage, like what happened in Vishakha & Ors. vs. the State of Rajasthan. This raises a very pertinent question that, why were women, in the first place married off so early?

The answer finds its roots in three spectrums. The first being the embedded patriarchy in our society. Women were mostly considered as burdens to be loaded off as soon as possible. Women moving out after marriage, excessive dowry, and insecurity of sexual exploitation were the reasons why girl children weren’t preferred, as this had to be gotten rid of as soon as possible.

Secondly, culture. Most cultures believe that to have healthy children, women should deliver kids, right on attaining puberty and some cultures even believe that women should have intercourse within 16 days of their first period so that they remain pure and thus have healthy babies. The third reason is believed to be poverty, where breadwinners of families had to struggle to make ends meet, the excessive amount of dowry seemed to be the biggest concern, and thus, the longer the girl stays at home, the higher is her expense. So, marrying girls off at a young age was the most feasible option. 

2 Genders, 2 Legal Ages

Marriage

However, in all these customs and laws, there was an age difference set, and men were to be older than women, mandatorily. One most used argument to back this was, that women age faster than men, both physically and emotionally. But if seen scientifically, men are competent of reproducing right on attaining puberty which is similar to that of women, making this argument vague and baseless. But the main reason is completely socially built. Factors like looks (women are expected to look young), women being physically and mentally submissive to older men, men being given more time to earn and gather wealth, etc. are the factors why most societies and many religions espoused a gender gap, the least being 5 years.

So, as a law is codified with the social custom as its kernel, ancient and medieval India set the unwritten norm of marrying girls off at the age of 6, 7, or 8, while men were in their 20’s or late teenage. Initially, when the Indian Penal Code was codified, sexual intercourse with a girl younger than the age of 10 was criminalized, further in 1891, when the Age of Consent Act was introduced, which raised the age of consent for marriage to 12, it received a dire backlash. National extremists claimed that the British are forcing their influence on the Indian culture. With time the age was set higher and higher but the age gap remained unchanged. Today, most religious marriage Acts, like the Indian Christian Marriage Act, Parsi Marriage Act, Hindu Marriage Act, lay down different minimum ages of marriage for both genders.

How is this a matter of injustice?

At present, the legal marriageable age set is 18 for women and 21 for men. In a consultation paper on reform in family law in 2018, the Law Commission said that having different legal standards contributes to the stereotype that wives must be younger than their husbands. We have often come across WhatsApp forwards that subtly joke about men being capable of voting at the age of voting but not handling a wife at the age of 18. As mentioned above there isn’t any logical reason for wives to be younger than their husbands, the entire idea is just socially upheld with patriarchal intents. This impugns not only the 14th and 15th Article of the Indian Constitution which promises equality for everyone and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of gender but also India’s commitment under the Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)

The most conspicuous reason for the differently set age to be unjust is that, when wives are younger than their husband, it would be convenient for men to subjugate their wives on account of superiority, financially, physically, and in terms of awareness about the world. A lot of Indian households do not expect their daughters-in-law to be very educated or of the same age, because that might lead to her knowing her rights and thus would serve to be an unideal wife. We come across hundreds of matrimonial ads where families prefer not-so-ambitious women as their daughters-in-law.

And thus, as soon as they complete the minimal age of marriage, they are married off, so that they remain good housewives. The second reason why it serves to be unjust is that it leaves for women a narrower scope and time to complete their education and thus have financial independence. In India, nearly 27% of the girls get married before attaining 18 whereas only 4% of boys are married off before their 18th birthday, which clearly leaves more opportunities for them to complete their education and thus be financially independent.

Marriage

Most girls who are permitted to receive higher education are just allowed for them to attain majority and thus, right on completing 18, they are forced to discontinue their education. Most parents wait for girls to turn 18 just so that the marriage doesn’t become a legally recognized crime. The third factor is that, women being typically assigned the wife-mother role, are expected to have kids right after marriage. Nearly 10% of women had their first kids, before attaining the majority.

This forces them to bear and raise children without having attained emotional and mental maturity. Not just are they exposed to the risk of teenage pregnancy, but having accepted motherly chores and duties, or Ghar Grihasthi, they are forced to live within the four walls of the house and thus being least exposed to the outside world. such mothers are then forced to live and raise their children in poverty and unsound conditions. 

A revision to increase the age

Early 2020 saw a leap towards equalizing the marriageable age when BJP leader Ashwini Kumar Upadhyaya filed a PIL in the Delhi high court seeking uniform minimum marriageable age. The plea states that – The discriminatory ‘minimum age’ limit for marriage for men and women is based on patriarchal stereotypes, has no scientific backing, perpetrates de jure and de facto inequality against women, and goes completely against the global trends. This plea was further taken to the Supreme Court, which in turn did not deliver a response and the plea is left suspended.

The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, in his Independence Day speech proposed to increase the legal age of marriage for women, from 18 to 21. This again would be allied with some problems like insecurity of sexual exploitation and increase of the age of consent for sexual activities from 18 to 21. Engaging in sexual activities before marriage is still a taboo in society, increasing the legal age for marriage would again constrain sexuality among young and consenting adults. But if seen the other way, and reduced the minimum marriageable age for men to 18, it would serve to be a step towards equality. The Indian Majority Act, 1875 considers every person attaining the age of 18, as an adult, capable of voting, entering into contracts, driving, etc. This could possibly lower the expectations of a wife to be younger, weaker, and more dependent than her husband.

Conclusion

Though this may have some cons, it would lend a hand towards gender equality, a phenomenon we have been fighting against for ages. Even if the marriageable age is to be increased, it may not result in very favorable outcomes. Even when the minimum age to marry is 18, 1.5 million girls are married off before turning 18, increasing the marriageable age to 21 would just increase the number of child marriages.  In the end, every problem is linked to one basic problem: ignorance. Every social evil, like patriarchy, inequality (as in this case) finds its roots in ignorance. The Indian states having girls married off at the mean age of 20 and 21, like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, etc are interestingly the among the states having the least literacy.

The thing we need to focus more on is, educating the people, asking schools and educational institutions, NGOs, police to be vigilant about child marriages or forceful marriages happening and do whatever in their capacity to stop it. Young girls and their families must be made aware of their financial independence, through schemes, workshops, plays, or any medium. In the end, patriarchy is the main trait of our society and that could not be changed overnight. India, though is progressive as a country, as a society we’re still dogmatic. Only through education can we bring a change to it. 

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