Bill increasing minimum marriage age for girls to come into effect two years after it is notified, says Union government

The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021 seeks to increase the minimum marital age for girls from 18 to 21 years, to bring it at par with that for men.


ON Wednesday, the Union government declared that the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which increases the minimum age of marriage for girls from 18 to 21 years, would come into force two years after it is notified, following whenever it is passed by the Parliament. According to the Union government, the period of two years provides “ample time” for the citizens to prepare for the changes made by the amendment.

In June 2020, the Union government set up a task force under the leadership of politician, activist, author and Indian handicrafts curator Jaya Jaitly, to examine the correlation of the age of marriage and motherhood with the health of mother and child, key parameters like infant mortality rate, maternal mortality rate, and other relevant data points pertaining to health and nutrition. The task force, among other terms of reference, was required to suggest legislative instruments or amendments in support of its recommendations.

The task force, whose report has not been made public, purportedly recommended raising the age of marriage for women to 21 years — at par with men — to promote gender equality in society. Reportedly, it suggested two options regarding the date of implementation of the amendment: either two years from the date of notification of the amendment, or scheduling the increase in the age of marriage in a phased manner by one year at a time, from one year after the notification.

On December 21, 2021, the Bill, seeking to amend the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 (PMCA), which provides for the minimum age of marriage to be 18 years for females and 21 years for males, was introduced in the Lok Sabha.

According to the Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Bill, the existing laws fail to adequately meet the constitutional mandate of gender equality in marriageable age among men and women. It states that there is an urgent need to tackle the societal issue of child marriage that continues despite the passing of the PMCA that replaced the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 to prohibit the solemnisation of child marriages.

By bringing women at par with men in terms of the marital age, it seeks “to address the issues of women in a holistic manner, as a measure for empowerment of women, gender equality, increasing the female labour force participation, make them self-reliant and to enable them to take decisions themselves.”

The bill purports to override any other law, custom, usage or practice governing parties to a marriage. It intends to amend all other laws relating to marriage – the Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872, the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, 1936, the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937, the Special Marriage Act, 1954, the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 and the Foreign Marriage Act, 1969 – to bring the minimum age of marriage for women at par with men.

Further, while the PMCA allows the filing of a petition by a female party who was a child at the time of a marriage to nullify the marriage till two years after such party attains the age of majority, that is, till 20 years of age, the bill, on the other hand, allows the filing of a nullification petition till five years after the female party attains majority, that is, till the age of 23 years.

Responding to questions on the issue of uniform age of marriage in the Parliament, the Union government has stated that marriage at the age of 21 years would enable girls to achieve physical and psychological maturity, which substantially reduces the risk of maternal mortality, low birth weight, infant mortality and child undernutrition.

The bill is currently under examination with the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education, Women, Children, Youth and Sports.

However, according to public health experts, the age of marriage has an insignificant correlation with pregnancy and birth outcomes. Experts note that key pregnancy and birth complications are typically addressed through public health programmes supporting nutritional supplementation in pre-adolescent to adolescent girls.

Further, child rights activists opine that multiple vulnerabilities like poverty, lack of access to education and vocational training, and other socio-economic barriers that girls face cause early marriages, and increasing the age of marriage is not going to solve the concerns.

On February 20, a Supreme Court bench comprising comprising Chief Justice of India Dr. D.Y. Chandrachud and Justices P.S. Narasimha and J.B. Pardiwala dismissed a petition filed by Bharatiya Janata Party leader and advocate Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay seeking to raise the minimum age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years. The bench noted that it could not issue a writ of mandamus to the Parliament and that it was for legislatures to consider the issue.

On February 3, the state government of Assam launched a state-wide drive on child marriage, arresting over 3,000 people and charging them under provisions of the PMCA as well as the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO Act). Protests were held in different parts of the state with wives and family members, where marriages were solemnised years ago and in many cases sole bread earners were arrested.

The Gauhati High Court, granting anticipatory bail to some of the accused arrested under the crackdown, observed that the arrest and incarceration were creating havoc in the private lives of people that involved children and elders. It questioned the inclusion of the POCSO Act in the offences charged against the accused and remarked that the charges do not entail the need for custodial interrogation.

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