THE UNION CABINET HAS JUST given the go-ahead for increasing the minimum age of marriage for women to 21, and this seems reasonable. Earlier, there was discrimination because while women had to be 18 to legally marry, for men it was 21. What possible justification could there be for this difference in a progressive society? And yet, there is still a question that arises—why couldn’t the age for men have been brought down to 18 instead of taking it up for women? Eighteen is the norm with the rest of the world, or at least the overwhelming majority of nations. Eighteen is when people are thought to become adults. If you commit a crime, you get convicted as an adult once you turn 18 because it is expected that you now know the consequences of your actions. You get to vote at 18 because you are mentally able to judge who should rule your state and country. What is it about marriage in India that makes 21 the magic figure?
The increase in age is as per the recommendations of a committee that thought, besides parity with men, the later women married, the more the probability of them becoming educated, having the means for an independent livelihood and thus not be beholden or subservient to men, as has been the culture in this country. In that case, why not just increase the age of marriage to 30? The number 21 is really just an arbitrary one picked out of the air by the people the committee consulted. There is really no reason for much to change in three years. Parents who don’t want to educate their daughters will not do so because they can’t now get them married. They will resent having to shoulder the financial burden for three more years, and all kinds of second-degree effects will come into motion—illegal marriages, women being forced to work in menial jobs or relegated to household chores.
The idea that social change can be wrought by lines in a legislation is the great myth that the Indian state has wilfully swallowed for decades because it fails in real change that require efficiency and vision. To educate women or make them independent, you need policies and incentives that focus directly on these ends.
Changing the age of marriage might at the most have a remote correlation. It will most probably have no substantial effect.
Women’s emancipation is a war that is anyway already being won. Every year, more join the workforce; the number of those who are bound to their homes is huge, but reducing. Does anyone doubt women are better off today than 10 or 50 years ago?
It is the natural course of a society’s progress as it becomes more literate and prosperous. So long as you don’t tamper with that evolution, nothing much is gained by laws that serve to do nothing but extend the reach of the state into people’s lives.