Do not marry in haste, girl!

Soon, a Bill will be tabled in Parliament to raise the legal age of marriage for girls to 21, at par with boys. It is a false equivalence to say that if they can vote at 18, they can marry. Voting is not a life-changing experience like marriage.

It seemed one of those topics on which there would be unanimity in society, and even among political parties. In the last month of 2021, we learnt that the Union cabinet has cleared a proposed Bill to increase the legal age of marriage for girls from 18 to 21, the same as it is for boys.

On the face of it, such a Bill seems unexceptional. Who wouldn’t want gender parity between girls and boys in the third decade of the 21st century? Who wouldn’t want three more years of freedom for girls before their marriages are arranged?

Before tackling the arguments put forward by activists and political parties against raising the age of marriage, let’s jog our memory about how foolish youngsters are at that age, as summarised very evocatively in the lyrics of the Sound of Music track: ‘You are 16 going on 17…’ The very idea of a boy of 17 saying he’ll be able to look after a girl of 15 is laughable, considering what they both know of the real world.

You wait little girl

On an empty stage

For fate to turn the light on

 

Your life little girl

Is an empty page

That men will want to write on…

You are 16 going on 17

Baby it’s time to think

Better beware

Be canny and careful

Baby you’re on the brink

 

You are 16 going on 17

Fellows will fall in line

Eager young lads

And roues and cads

Will offer you food and wine

 

Totally unprepared are you

To face a world of men

Timid and shy and scared are you

Of things beyond your ken

 

You need someone

Older and wiser

Telling you what to do

I am 17 going on 18

I’ll take care of you

 

Then the girl sings:

I am 16 going on 17

I know that I’m naive

Fellows I meet may tell me I’m sweet

And willingly I believe

 

I am 16 going on 17 innocent as a rose

Bachelor dandies

Drinkers of brandies

What do I know of those?

 

Totally unprepared am I

To face a world of men

Timid and shy and scared am I

Of things beyond my ken

 

I need someone

Older and wiser

Telling me what to do

You are 17 going on 18

I’ll depend on you..

That, of course, is a snapshot of western culture. The movie about a nunnery dropout as Hitler takes over Austria was made in 1965, so a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. Arranged marriages have given way to love marriages, girls have started working on a scale never imagined back then. From frowning on the education of girls to wanting all of them to go to college, our society has moved ahead by leaps and bounds. The orthodox thinking that a girl should be married off as early as possible so that she is able to ‘adjust’ to the in-laws has become obsolete as the joint family breaks down and couples live away from the family.

In our country, the age of marriage was pushed up to prevent child marriage, which was a widespread practice well into the 20th century when it had died out in the West. There was also consternation about the high rate of maternal mortality, as girls who had just about entered adolescence tended to die during childbirth. Once the norm had been set at 18, at least there was a fear of the law and of societal disapproval when girls continued to be married off early. Educated sections of Indian society already agree that 25 years is a good age of marriage for girls, once they have completed their higher education and/or professional qualifications and have started working.

In the face of these historical developments, those who oppose raising the age of marriage for girls to 21 don’t seem to be a perverse lot. They are trying to protect communities that still indulge in child marriage while they secretly worry whether the government is sneakily bringing in the Uniform Civil Code. While minority leaders are putting forward totally laughable arguments, nobody is giving voice to the poor, who feel that their daughters must be packed off as early as possible so that they have less mouths to feed. Of course, the same parents will get their sons married as soon as possible and have more mouths to feed as their daughters-in-law start producing kids.  

And nobody is asking the girls who were once 18. When we were in our late teens, doing undergraduation, we were basically juvenile delinquents. The song ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ comes to mind, rather than the Sound of Music track. Most of us married at the age of 25 and repented at leisure. We envied the boys who could be closer to 30 when they married, as they did not have to worry about the biological clock ticking, as gynaecologists advised having the first baby before the age of 30. With the advancement of medical science, women are now assured of all assistance in delivering a healthy baby even in their thirties and beyond. So the legal barrier of 21 is really only important for the poor, who perceive daughters as a financial burden, and conservative sections of society stuck in a medieval mindset.

Incredibly, the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) has trashed the government’s move in no uncertain terms. A statement from the women’s wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has put forward some startling argument which sound specious, to say the least. In their words: “This move, ostensibly for ‘women’s empowerment’, will be totally ineffective in a situation where the government has failed to meet even the most basic nutritional, educational and employment needs of the people. The move will in fact be counterproductive since raising the age of marriage for girls will result in further targeting of choice marriages. It will act as a way to control the sexuality of a young girl, who already faces an uphill task to marry someone of her choice. Studies have shown and we know from our experience that criminalisation of consensual sexual activity between young persons has often led to charges of kidnapping, rape and other crimes including under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, leading to the breaking of these unions and incarceration of the young man involved. Such a measure will therefore result in affecting the basic constitutional rights of women to privacy and autonomy.”

It seems that they want to punish the entire sisterhood for the aberrations of a few. Statistically, how many girls want to marry at 18? Even if they fall in love at that age, surely their parents will need the state machinery’s help in making them postpone taking a step that will determine their future forever? It’s interesting that the Kerala wing of AIDWA has toed this line at a time when news broke about a CPI(M) party member’s daughter Anupama Chandran having to search desperately for her newborn baby whom her parents had secretly given for adoption. The baby was adopted by a couple in Andhra Pradesh. Her father later said that he had taken the advice of the Communist Party to which he belonged, as did the young couple, aged 22 and 34. Here was an adult couple clearly over the age of consent being thwarted by a nanny party that did not allow a woman to marry someone of her choice.

In fact, the AIDWA sanctimoniously says that if gender parity is to be brought about, the age of marriage of boys should also be lowered to 18. To think that Left-wing ideology was once dubbed the domain of “progressive forces”. More power to Jaya Jaitly’s 10-member commission on whose recommendation the government has acted and less to AIDWA and its ilk. Hopefully, the patriarchs will not have the last laugh.   

(Cover: Representational image: Getty)

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