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Government to revise the legal age of marriage for women: All you need to know

Arfa Javaid

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman during her Budget Speech 2020-21, announced to revise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 years to 21 years. In February 2020, Sitharaman announced to constitute a task force that will present its recommendations over this in 6 months time period. 

The high-level committee constituted by the Central Government will submit its recommendations into the matter by July 31, 2020. The task force will look into matters related to motherhood and marriage at an early age. 

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Members of the Committee

Jaya Jaitly, former Samata Party President heads the 10-member task force. VK Paul (a member of NITI Ayog), Secretaries Health, Women and Child Development, Law and School Education are the members of the committee while Najma Akhtar (New Delhi); Vasudha Kamath (Maharashtra); and Dipti Shah (Gujarat) are the independent members of the task force. 

Why there's a need to set up the committee?

As per several reports, the age of marriage is the key factor in improving the issues related to maternal and child health, improvement of nutrition levels, etc. Girls marrying before the age of 18 experience unwanted pregnancies, Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD), prone to sexual and reproductive health morbidities and maternal mortality. Thus, the Government of India is planning to revise the legal age of marriage for women-- 21 years (same as the legal age of marriage for men). 

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman stated, 'Women's age of marriage was increased from 15 years to 18 years in 1978 by amending erstwhile Sharda Act of 1929. As India progresses further, opportunities open up for women to pursue higher education and careers. There are imperatives of lowering MMR (maternal mortality rate) as well as improvement of nutrition levels. The entire issue about the age of a girl entering motherhood needs to be seen in this light. I propose to appoint a task force that will present its recommendations in six months' time.'

Legal Age for Marriage in India

The legal age of marriage in India is 18 years for women and 21 years for men. The minimum age of marriage has been challenged in courts by various Muslim organizations in India stating that the minimum age must be left as per the sharia law (after the attainment of puberty). 

History of Legal Age of Marriage in India

In 1860, the Indian Penal Code criminalised sexual intercourse with a girl below the age of 10 years. In addition to this, Age of Consent Bill, 1927, made marriage invalid with a girl under the age of 12 years. 

In the year 1929, the Child Marriage Restraint Act set the minimum age of men and women as 14 and 18 years respectively. This law is known as Sarda Act. The Act was named after Harbilas Sarda-- Judge and a member of Arya Samaj. 

In 1954, The Special Marriage Act was passed under which the people of India and all Indian nationals in foreign countries, irrespective of the religion or faith followed by either of them can marry. 

In 1978, the Sarda Act was amended and the legal minimum age of marriage for women was increased to 18 years and for men to 21 years. 

The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006 also maintained the minimum age of 18 and 21 years for women and men respectively. 

As per data compiled by the UNICEF on marriage in India, around 27% of women in India are married before the age of 18. If the legal age of women is revised by the Centre from 18 to 21 years, then the stricter laws will be reinforced to prevent the marriage at an early age. 

As per data compiled in 2017, the girls in the age group 15-19 died to the complications in pregnancy and childbirth are 35,000 while in 2000, this number was 103,000. 

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