Why criminalizing early marriage will do more harm than good
Questions relating to raising the age of marriage for girls have been in the collective consciousness of young people since last year when the Prime Minister announced this possible amendment during his Independence Day speech. The decision received praise from many sides because it “will give girls more time for their education.” This is a simplistic argument because time alone will not automatically translate into girls’ school and college attendance.
Various factors such as multidimensional poverty, lack of safe opportunities and schools, as well as gender norms that do not treat girls as equals, affect their education. The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill 2021, which seeks to make an amendment to the 2006 law, has now been referred to a standing parliamentary committee for discussion. Even though we all believe that girls should marry late, a change in the law will do more harm than good.
Push marriages underground
Early marriage in India is the result of several deeply rooted social norms, such as the belief that a woman’s honor can only be protected if she is married, and that marriage will protect her from sexual violence, prevent running away. and will guarantee a lower dowry. . These deeply ingrained standards are unlikely to change with an increase in the minimum age. Therefore, the families of 63 percent of women in India who marry before the age of 21, most of whom are from poor and marginalized communities, will become criminals overnight with the introduction of this movement.
Without working on the root cause of early marriages, criminalizing them will lead to illegal marriages. This can hinder access to maternity services, contraceptives or other sexual and reproductive health (SRHR) services in a country where premarital sex is still a taboo. Such a measure would be counterproductive for the health of women and girls, given that this is one of the reasons for the amendment. It will also hamper the access to rights of married girls, including the right to property and maintenance.
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Girls need a supportive environment
Society will not become gender equal by simply reducing the age of marriage for boys and girls on an equal footing without empowering girls. Dropping out of school is one of the main reasons for early marriage. The Indian school system can be a hostile and unwelcoming space for a girl, from a lack of clean toilets and menstrual hygiene, to sexual harassment, to the depletion of girls’ education. According to the National Family Health Survey-4, girls with more than 12 years of schooling marry five years later than those with less than five years of schooling. Focusing on improving girls’ access to education, especially in marginalized communities, would go a long way in organically raising the age of marriage.
In addition, training and employment opportunities enable girls to become economically independent and change the perception that women are a “financial burden” to be married. It gives girls and young women greater opportunities to negotiate their lives and their marriages. Creating an enabling environment to reduce the incidence of early marriage is far more rewarding than creating a punitive policy that could criminalize millions of people.
The prejudices mentioned above should convincingly justify why we should rethink this change in the age of marriage for girls. However, a crucial question remains as the country debates this decision: Did we ask the girls? And more importantly, isn’t deciding when girls should get married counterintuitive to an amendment that seeks to empower girls? Jaya Jaitly, the committee head of the task force that reported to the government on the issue this year, noted that 15 NGOs and 16 universities have supported the move. But university students are already in the higher education system and might not be the most marginalized or among those most affected by this decision.
It is necessary to have those conversations at the grassroots where knowledge of a law (or its amendment) does not seep into. During our campaign on the ground at Oxfam India, we found that young people have strong opinions on the issue and can understand the nuances or potential harm resulting from this amendment. It is urgent to involve them when we make decisions for them.
The author is Program Coordinator – Gender Justice at Oxfam India. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.
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