The central government’s proposal to increase women’s minimum age of marriage has hit a wall, with various women’s and other civil society organisations coming forward to express their opposition.

Women’s groups in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat have argued sharply against the proposal. A Women’s Collective comprising several organisations in the state submitted a memorandum to the Gujarat government last Friday expressing their disagreement with the centre’s move.

Earlier, on August 24 they organised a national briefing on the issue where young people representing 150 organisations in 15 states had aired their views.

It was on August 15 that Modi announced from the Red Fort that his government had formed a committee to ensure that daughters no longer suffer from malnutrition and are married off at the right age.

He said that as soon as the report was submitted the government would take appropriate decisions about daughters’ age of marriage.

Women’s activists say he was referring to the task force constituted by the Centre on June 4 with a mandate to examine the minimum age of marriage and its implications on the health and education of young women, especially on the maternal mortality rate.

Activists in Gujarat representing SAHAJ - Society for Health Alternatives, Shaishav, ANANDI - Area Networking and Development Initiatives, the Child Rights Collective - Gujarat and the Sahiyar Stree Sangathan explaining their viewpoint underlined that the government move comes with a certain political might and is ostensibly aimed at population control.

“We feel that even the laws that are in place like to check child marriage are on the ground being used to deny women a choice in marriage, instead of checking child marriage. Instead of offering a support system to girls the laws are inclined towards criminalising everything,” said Arundhati Shridhar of ANANDI.

Increasing the age at marriage may prove to be more detrimental, more so at a time of grave economic and social anxiety, the activists said, and makes little sense since the existing law meets global standards and is robust in itself.

They said that to truly resolve the issue of early marriage, the aspects that need to be recognised and addressed squarely are impoverishment, patriarchal control over a girl’s sexuality, and the failure of the education system to create a popular alternative.

Organisation representatives said a social progression towards delayed marriages is already underway, and further legal intervention is unnecessary.

Referring to National Family Health Survey statistics they said the proportion of underage marriages in Gujarat had gone down from 38.7% to 24.9% in the decade from 2006 to 2016.

“This is due to a range of factors, including better social determinants overall, young women being in school for longer, and experiencing more freedom to make decisions. At this juncture, it makes little sense to take a criminalising legal route to delay the age of marriage, when we know there are other determinants at play that may work more positively,” the activists’ memorandum reads.

Their second contention is the real cause-effect relationship is between higher education and delayed motherhood.

It is believed that delaying marriage keeps girls in school longer. But research shows that it is actually the other way around: the longer girls stay in school, the more likely they and their families are to delay marriage and motherhood.

A study showed that marriage or other social stigmas don’t pull girls out of school; poor school systems that are overburdened, inaccessible, and simply not normed to follow the right to education are actually pushing them out,” they said.

They cited an International Centre for Research on Women study which showed that when girls’ education was prevented due to teacher absenteeism, lack of female teachers, and the targeted harassment of girls from vulnerable backgrounds, “they were married off soon after”.

They further pointed out that malnutrition sets in long before motherhood does, and early marriage is clearly not the primary determinant of poor nutrition.

To address girls’ and women’s health outcomes therefore, interventions aimed solely at delaying age at marriage will have no effect. Poverty and other determinants of marginalisation like class, caste etc. become traps that young women must navigate in addition to rigid gender norms.

It is more robust food security programs that address malnutrition and health that are needed, they argue.

The memorandum also conveys to the government that the unmet needs of destigmatised, accessible contraception, safe abortion and comprehensive sexuality education are far more urgent to address.

It states that the flagship Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram which started in 2014 has not been universally implemented for various reasons. It says there is a conflict between the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act of 2006, which criminalises all sexual activity below the age of 18 years, and the adolescent reproductive and sexual health strategy of the central government.

“The POCSO Act also belies reality: the fact that 6.5 percent of women age 15 to 19 have already begun childbearing. The law seems to be at odds with the government programmes for adolescent health and empowerment. The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, when it comes together with POCSO, makes the act of seeking abortion services a road to criminalisation, because it lays out the age of consent to be the same as the earlier age of marriage, thus causing young women who may want to seek education or abortion services to look away, fearing criminalisation,” they stated.

The activists argued that to improve health outcomes for girls, it is critical to improve young people’s access to adolescent-friendly sexual and reproductive health information and services, by removing social and legal barriers and universally implementing programmes like the RKSK.

They emphasised that the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act is a weapon against women’s choice, not against early marriage.

“A study by Partners for Law in Development showed that the PCMA is used twice as much against elopements and self-arranged marriages than forced marriages. Of the one-third cases that were registered against arranged marriages, less than half sought to prosecute the parents or the husband, others just seeking to nullify a union that hadn’t worked.

“We also know that child marriages have continued to happen regardless. The fair conclusion to be drawn from this is the fact that for the majority of those who used the law to end a child marriage, the issue was less about age, and more about the parents’ disapproval of the union, or of a societal perception of the ‘breakdown’ of arranged marriage norms.

“This is especially true of unions that transgress established rules of kinship: within the village, outside the caste, etc.”

“With an increase in the age of marriage, the window to enact a more severe clampdown on choice opens to society and disapproving parents, while also leaving young couples without the protection of the law. Without addressing choice in marriage, simply increasing the age only delays and exacerbates the eventual.

“POCSO and PCMA are a particularly lethal combination for those seeking sexual agency, because it collapses the age of consent to the age of marriage, thus rendering any sexual curiosity before 18 and 21 (for women and men respectively) criminal.

“The answer to this is not to increase the age of marriage, but to decrease the age of consent to 16, thereby recognising the biological and hormonal needs and growth of youth.”

If the well being of young women is aim, there is a need to focus on agency, not age, they said.

“Evidence shows that when young women are able to take their own informed decisions, with actual choices available, they are able to negotiate better outcomes for themselves.

“When we think of a legal framework that builds towards this empowerment, marriage or age of marriage should not be its primary focus. This narrows the scope of change dramatically – making it about the act of marriage, not the disabling circumstances that early marriage is a symptom of,” they stated.