Union Cabinet on Wednesday passed a proposal to raise the legal age of marriage for men and women from 18 to 21 years.
The decision is based on recommendations submitted to Niti Aayog in December 2020 by the Centre’s task force headed by Jaya Jaitly.
The task force was constituted to examine “matters pertaining to the age of motherhood, imperatives of lowering MMR (Maternal Mortality Rate), improvement of nutritional levels and related issues”.
According to data from NFHS 5, India attained a Total Fertility Rate of 2.0 for the first time, below the replacement level of TFR at 2.1, indicating that a population explosion in the coming years is unlikely. The data also revealed that child marriage has come down marginally from 27 percent in 2015-16 to 23 percent in 2019-21.
“We have had feedback from 16 universities and engaged over 15 NGOs to reach out to young people, particularly in rural and marginalized communities, such as in particular districts in Rajasthan where child marriage is quite prevalent. Feedback was taken across religions, and from urban and rural areas, equally,” Jaitly told The Indian Express.
“Across the board, the feedback we received from young adults is that the age of marriage should be 22-23 years. There have been objections from certain quarters, but we felt it was more important to be guided by the target group,’’ she said.
The task force, set up in June 2020 by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, also included Dr. V K Paul of Niti Aayog and Secretaries of the WCD, Health and Education ministries, and of the Legislative Department.
It has been recommended that a comprehensive public awareness campaign be chalked out to encourage social acceptance of the decision. It has also sought access to schools and universities for girls, including transportation in the case of educational institutes in far-flung areas.
The committee has further recommended that sex education be formalized and introduced in the school curriculum. Training of women in polytechnic institutes, skills and business training, and livelihood enhancement have also been recommended as means to ensure that an increase in marriageable age can be implemented.
Section 5(iii) of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 sets 18 years as the minimum age for the bride and 21 for the groom. The Special Marriage Act, 1954 and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 also prescribe 18 and 21 years as the minimum age of consent for marriage for women and men, respectively.
“Women’s age of marriage was increased from 15 years to 18 years in 1978, by amending the erstwhile Sharda Act of 1929. As India progresses further, opportunities open up for women to pursue higher education and careers. There are imperatives of lowering MMR as well as improvement of nutrition levels. The entire issue about the age of a girl entering motherhood needs to be seen in this light,” Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had said during budget speech last year.