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Bill to raise marriage age for women sent to Parliamentary panel after protests

ByFareeha Iftikhar and Malavika Murali, New Delhi
Dec 22, 2021 04:47 AM IST

The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021, was later referred by the Lower House to a parliamentary panel for further scrutiny by a voice vote.

The government on Tuesday tabled a draft legislation in the Lok Sabha that seeks to raise the legal age for marriage of women from 18 to 21 years, at par with men, amid protests from opposition parties on the manner in which the bill was introduced.

The government on Tuesday tabled a draft legislation in the Lok Sabha that seeks to raise the legal age for marriage of women from 18 to 21 years.
The government on Tuesday tabled a draft legislation in the Lok Sabha that seeks to raise the legal age for marriage of women from 18 to 21 years.

The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021, was later referred by the Lower House to a parliamentary panel for further scrutiny by a voice vote. After examining the bill, the panel will present its recommendations before Parliament.

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“I would like to present that women’s equality in our country needs to be seen in (terms of) age of marriage,” women and child development minister Smriti Irani said while introducing the bill in Parliament.

Existing laws do not adequately secure the constitutional mandate of gender equality in marriageable age among men and women, the draft legislation says. “Women are often put in a disadvantageous position in regard to higher education, vocational instruction, attainment of psychological maturity and skill-sets, etc. Entering into the employment sphere and being part of the workforce to make themselves self dependent ... is a critical area,” the bill adds. “These disadvantages perpetuate the dependence of women on men.”

Increasing the marriageable age of women to 21 years would help in lowering maternal and infant mortality rates while improving nutrition and sex ratio at birth, the proposed legislation says. The central government will offer a grace period of two years from the date the legislation receives presidential assent.

Some opposition members criticised the government for listing the bill in the supplementary business list, which was circulated minutes before the house reconvened at 2 pm on Tuesday. Others protested that the proposed law limits rights under several personal laws in violation of fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution.

“I want to tell the government that they will make mistakes if they hurry. They didn’t consult any of the stakeholders,” said Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury of the Congress party. “Why does the government keep doing this?”

Stating that this was the second or third time that the government was aggressively bringing in a draft law without consulting the opposition, Nationalist Congress Party MP Supriya Sule alleged that it is not sticking to the agenda as discussed by the business advisory committee, a group of MPs across parties that meets under the chairmanship of the Speaker.

The raising of marriageable age also came in for criticism. “This is against fundamental rights. An 18-year-old can vote but can’t get married?” said Asaduddin Owaisi of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen. “What is your beti bachao programme about?” The central government has been running a beti bachao, beti padhao campaign to prevent female feticide and improve efficiency of welfare services for girls.

“After so many years of Independence, men and women need equal rights in matrimony. This amendment gives equality to men and women in allowing both to marry at 21. Our research shows that 21 lakh (2.1 million) child marriages had to be stopped and many underage girls were found pregnant,” minister Irani said, countering the opposition’s objections. “You are stopping women from their right to equality.”

The bill seeks to modify the definition of a child, staing that it means a male or female who has not completed 21 years of age. It also seeks to make consequential changes to various personal laws relating to the marriage of different communities to ensure a uniform marriage age.

The draft legislation seeks to amend seven personal laws – the Indian Christian Marriage Act; the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act; the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act; the Special Marriage Act; the Hindu Marriage Act; Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act and the Foreign Marriage Act.

It further seeks to prohibits child marriage, irrespective of any law, custom, usage or practice governing the parties. “(It) declares that provisions of the Act shall have an overriding effect over every other law, custom, usage or practice governing the parties. (It) makes consequential amendments to the other laws relating to marriage,” the bill stated.

The Union Cabinet on December 15 cleared the proposal to raise the minimum age of marriage for women. The Cabinet’s approval came after a NITI Aayog committee headed by Jaya Jaitly, former president of the Samata Party, suggested raising the marriageable age in its December 2020 report. The report was prepared after conducting a survey among students of 16 universities, where 70% of the respondents agreed that the marriageable age for women should be increased to 21.

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