Does ‘Marriage Age’ Matter? 

Guest post written by Shreya Roy, author of State, Law and Gender: Debating the Age of Marriage in India, 1872-1978.

In 2020, the Government of India proposed to raise the age of marriage for women from 18 years to 21 years. In this context, I set about tracing the history of the marriage-age debate in India. Although I have done the work in the context of Indian history, the problem of child marriage is worldwide.  

Over the last century and a half, consecutive women’s movements in India have started to turn to the law to secure their political aims. Social reformers, women’s rights and feminist activists have effectively advocated for legal modifications in both the public and private spheres of women’s lives and experiences, with the expectation that the law would therefore modify these facts. Despite this intense involvement, little appears to have changed in the lives of women on a daily basis. Is this due to the fact that the law is fundamentally conservative and traditional by nature and is intended to counter the liberal and radical ideologies of feminist thinkers? Is it because law is one of many narratives that work to maintain and normalize imbalanced power relations? Is the rule of law becoming too essential in our struggles for social and political change?   

I started my research with a methodical reading of legislative debates over bills from 1872 and 1929. Act III of 1872 provided for the first time in India a law for civil marriage. Usually mentioned in Bengali as ‘tin aain’, or ‘three laws’, this act had three foremost mechanisms; it necessitated the rejection of idolatry, it also stated a minimum age of eighteen for boys and fourteen for girls and endorsed inter-caste matches. Besides that, boys and girls below the age of twenty-one years had to obtain the consent of their father or guardian before a marriage could be solemnized. Suniti Devi, daughter of Keshub Chandra Sen, was married before she reached the age of fourteen, immediately after the legislation was enacted. This was unquestionably one of the most contentious matrimonial events that took place in late colonial India.  

In January 1891, another bill raised the age of consent for sexual intercourse with married and unmarried Indian girls from ten to twelve years. The bill was introduced in response to the death of a child-wife, Phulmonee, who died after her husband subjected her to violent sexual intercourse. It was clearly a compromise solution – the age of consent was raised to 12 while marriages could be arranged and performed without any age restriction.   

The real importance of this bill must be seen in terms of the Indian nationalist movement. The Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA) of 1929 was fought for by reformist Hindus and particularly the emerging women’s organizations because it illustrated that Indians were deeply concerned with and anxious to change certain social practices.   

After the enactment of CMRA, the marriageable age for girls was fixed at fourteen and for boys at eighteen. Later, in 1949, an amendment to this act was introduced according to which the minimum age of marriage for girls became fifteen and the minimum age of marriage for boys remained eighteen. The law remained in force till 1978, when it was amended and the marriageable age for girls was raised to eighteen and for boys to twenty-one. In 2006, the old law was repealed by the new law, known as Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006 (PCMA) and the emphasis was shifted from simple restraining of child marriages to that of prohibition.  

What do these historic debates tell us about present-day concern and the Indian Government’s new initiative for raising the age of marriage of girls? I think that marriage is fundamentally different from adulthood, suffrage, and sexual rights. It is not only a right, but also a collective responsibility; therefore, it is pointless to confuse marriage with anything else.   

The years from 18 to 21, are not just three more years of life; they are a series of steps towards becoming. Marriage means more than just consenting to sex, it means being prepared to take on the responsibility of having children. If the age of marriage of girls is increased from 18 to 21, there would be many positives, like the maturity of body and mind of a girl, the ability to take decisions to protect herself, the scope to gain education; malnutrition, infant and maternal mortality will lessen.    

Parents also need to be told not to shove their daughters into danger for the rest of their lives. But before that, we have to realize for ourselves that getting married at the age of 18 is never good for girls.  There is opposition to a further increase in the age of marriage for women. This opposition forgets our responsibility to ensure the safety and rights of girls. It is our responsibility to make it clear that the age of marriage for girls should be raised and necessary arrangements should be made for it. 

SHREYA ROY teaches in the PG Department of History at Vivekananda College, Thakurpukur, Kolkata. She has published in numerous journals and edited collections, and is the co-author of a book on the history of modern Bengal. Her book State, Law and Gender is one of the first titles to be published under the Boydell-Manohar imprint. Boydell-Manohar is a partnership between Boydell & Brewer and Indian academic publisher Manohar.  

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