02/07/2008, 00.00
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Dubious proposal to lower marriage age to 18

by Nirmala Carvalho
India’s Law Commission wants to lower the age of marriage for men from 21 to 18 like for women. Its goal is to erase child marriage and its abuses. An expert argues that tinkering with the law to fight abuses will not work; what is needed are better structures and health care.

New Delhi (AsiaNews) – The Law Commission has suggested that the marriageable age for boys and girls be fixed uniformly at 18. At present it is already 18 for girls and 21 for boys. The goal is to fight the widespread problem of marriage between children, but an expert warns that the change could make matters worse. As part of its proposal to reform the system, the Commission has also suggested that marriage when both girls and boys are under 18 be banned and that marriages at an age below 16 be declared null and void. Under the current law child marriage is not invalid even if the girl is under 15 and this despite the fact that section 375 of the Indian Penal Code says it is a crime to have sexual relations with anyone under the age of 15.

In its motivation the Commission said that marriage between minors is a serious problem, especially in some parts of the country because many girls are pushed by their parents to marry early, a situation that deprives them of any chance they have of getting a decent education and live a life of freedom and dignity.

At a younger age women are more vulnerable to sexual abuse even within the home. And early pregnancies carry many complications during delivery. The country has in fact a high mortality rate among women in labour and the newly-born. Moreover, young couples are forced to enter the labour force very early, increasing the problem of child labour.

In order to avoid abuses, the Law Commission calls for the mandatory registration of all marriages.

Lenin Raghuvansi, a human rights activist and the director of the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights, disagrees with the Commission’s recommendations.

He told AsiaNews that “uniformly fixing the marriageable age at 18—which is also the voting age—is a logical step according to them (the Commission), but the picture changes when considering the fate of the poor and the marginalised compared to the rest of society. For example, Dalits are victims to discrimination under India’s rigid caste system. In many parts of the country they are denied even a minimum of education and have far fewer economic opportunities and access to health care.”

For the Gwangiu Prize for human rights recipient, “legislators thought that the 1978 Child Marriage Act, which set the minimum age for marriage at 18 for women and 21 for men, would end child marriages. But it did not. Despite the ban, child marriage is still widespread in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and many other states, and not only among Tribals and Dalits.”

“Lowering the age of marriage will not erase this evil,” he explained. What is needed is for the government to promote long-term policies that improve health care and economic opportunities in rural areas. Only then should we consider lowering the age of marriage.”

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