A year ago, Shaji (name changed on request) was betrothed to a 17-year-old girl from his home town Malappuram on the condition that the marriage would be solemnized when the girl attains the legal age of marriage. Shaji went back to his workplace in a Gulf country hoping to go home as a groom in early 2020. But he could not fly back because of Covid-19. Hence both families decided to put the marriage on hold until the pandemic subsided.
But things took a dramatic turn a few days ago following a discussion in a family Whatsapp group about the union government's plan to raise the minimum age of marriage for women. Shaji's father asked him to rush home immediately. He boarded the flight the very next day. Now undergoing the mandatory seven-day quarantine at his home, Shaji, if tested negative, will marry his fiancée on the eighth day, in a quiet family ceremony.
This is not just Shaji’s story. Kerala is witnessing a huge rise in the number of weddings for the past few days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, in the second week of October, that a decision on raising the legal age of marriage for women would be taken soon.
A 10-member task force, formed by the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development with Jaya Jaitly as the head, has been examining the correlation of age of marriage and motherhood, health and nutrition parameters such as infant and maternal mortality rates, fertility rate and child sex ratio. The revision of marriage age will be based on the panel’s recommendation.
At present, the legal age of marriage for men is 21. For women, it is 18. Reports indicated that the government wants it to be raised to 21.
The proposition has created panic in Kerala. People now rush to solemnize marriages forgoing many ceremonies that, till recently, were considered sacrosanct.
“The panic is real,” said Anwar Karakkadan, district coordinator of Childline in Malappuram, who has been bombarded with frantic calls after reports on the age revision started doing the rounds.
“Those who are working in the Middle East and elsewhere can’t afford to come home now for marriage. Their families are petrified that they would land in jail if they marry off a girl who is yet to turn 21. The panic is so widespread that there has been a noticeable spike of marriages in the past couple of days,” he said.
Safna Akbarali, a Kozhikode-based psycho-social counsellor, said a girl in her neighbourhood got married recently a day after she turned 18. “The parents fixed everything in a week’s time. They rushed to get their daughter hitched before the government officially raises the legal age of marriage,” she said.
Upping the legal age for marriage, Anwar and Safna said, is impractical. “Even in the current scenario, girls are engaged as minors and get married a day after they turn 18. Even if the age is raised, weddings will continue to happen,” said Anwar.
Safna agreed, “Minors often get married both at the behest of parents and by their own choice. For some, a wedding is a way to escape from their impoverished or insecure family situation. Raising the age might not have the intended effect always.”
Resonating their opinion, Fr Joye James S.J., vice-president at Indian Social Institute, Bengaluru, and former chairman of Child Welfare Committee (CWC), Thiruvananthapuram, said that increasing the legal age of marriage is not practical.
“Even the UN declaration of 1989 defines the marriageable age of a person at 18. Increasing age is not practical wisdom,” he said.
“Our culture or government is not equipped to handle the problems that come with legally deciding on adulthood at 21. Many girls elope as soon as they turn 18 or even earlier because of lack of social security or love. We do not have a system to provide for them and keep them safe and happy. The focus needs to be on the holistic development of youngsters, equipping them with life skills and self-esteem, training young human beings to respect each other, offering them mandatory premarital counselling and exposing them to freedom in relationships,” he said.
‘Good for girls’
Supporting the move to increase the age of marriage to 21, V.P. Zuhra, a member of NISA, a Kozhikode-based progressive Muslim women’s forum, said an additional three years wouldn’t take off anything from the girls, but would instead make them physically, mentally and emotionally prepared for the world. “I have seen many girls, who, out of a whim, elope with a young lover as soon as they turn 18. When they face the harsh realities of life, they repent, fall into depression. If they wait till 21, they can become graduates, perhaps earn a job, be more career-oriented, attain financial independence, become more mature and be more opinionated,” she said.
Though the proposal to raise the marriage age is seen as a move to lower maternal mortality rate (MMR), improve nutrition in young women, promote higher education and ensure their educational, medical and financial well-being. But many consider it as a blow to traditions, violation of sexual rights of people and degrading cultural values.
But Zuhra said those who oppose the proposal are predominantly men. “Ask young girls and you will know that most of them want to study and build a career, and not get married. The perception that girls mature earlier than boys at 18 years is outdated. There are people who are immature even at 40,” she said.
‘Violation of rights’
Stressing that even the legal age of 18 couldn’t prevent child marriages, Advocate J. Sandhya, former member of Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, said misogyny can’t be curbed using a piece of legislation. “When the law becomes stringent, the tendency to break it becomes more. The mean age of marriage increased due to education and awareness programmes. Social awakening needs to be brought about by continuous interventions and not by raising the age of marriage.”
Sandhya said raising the marriage age will amount to rights violation. “One legally reaches adulthood at 18. He/she can choose the government, but not a life partner. He/she can start a business but not a family of their own.”
The solution, in Anwar’s opinion, is more and more awareness and nothing else. “Instead of upping the age limit, the government should focus on pre-marital counselling for youngsters and parents of teenagers, proper sex education for adolescent boys and girls, parental training for mothers and fathers-to-be and stringent provisions to report to local bodies all upcoming marriages with proof of age,” he said.
Sandhya agreed: “This move undermines social realities. Dropout is not the cause for child marriage, nor does it lead to population growth. If the aim of the proposal is to reduce MMR, better focus on improving the social system and health and education sectors. Increasing the age of marriage to 21 is not going to work as a quick fix.”
However, Zuhra thinks that for any move, opposition is quite natural. “There was a time when girls were married off at 13. When it was made to 18, there was opposition. It’s natural. there need not be any panic.”