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Marriage laws for Minors

Context:

Recently, the Supreme Court announced that it would examine whether minor girls, as young as 15 years, can marry on the basis of custom or personal law when such marriages are considered an offence in statutory law.

Relevance:

GS II: Polity and Governance

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. Details
  2. Supreme Court to Address Child Marriages
  3. Laws Governing Marriage in India
  4. Child Marriage in India: High Prevalence in Certain States
  5. Effects of Early Marriage

Details:

  • The legal age for marriage is 18 years for women and 21 years for men.
  • Marriage below this age is considered to be child marriage, and hence an offence.
  • In 2017, the Supreme Court had ruled that sexual intercourse by a man with his wife, who is below 18 years, is rape, reading down Exception 2 to Section 375 (rape) of the Indian Penal Code which allowed the husband of a girl child — between 15 and 18 years of age — to have non-consensual sex with her.

Supreme Court to Address Child Marriages

  • The Supreme Court of India is examining the legality of child marriages involving girls as young as 15 years old.
  • A petition was filed by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights against a recent ruling by the Punjab and Haryana High Court, which allowed for such marriages under Muslim personal law.
  • The Supreme Court has stated that the High Court ruling will not act as a judicial precedent for other courts.
  • The NCPCR argues that personal law and custom cannot be used as a defense for such marriages, which are considered an offense under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act and the Indian Penal Code.
  • The Supreme Court has also called for Parliament to lower the age of consent under the POCSO Act and the Indian Penal Code, which is currently set at 18 years.
  • The government has informed Parliament that it does not currently plan to lower the age of consent.

Laws Governing Marriage in India

Child Marriage Prohibition Act (PCMA)

  • The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021 was proposed to increase the minimum age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years.
  • The bill has been referred to a parliamentary standing committee and has received three extensions for submission of its report.

Minimum Age of Marriage for Women

  • The National Commission for Women (NCW) filed a petition to make the minimum age of marriage for Muslim women equal to that of other religious groups.
  • The NCW petition states that the minimum age of marriage for a man is 21 years and for a woman is 18 years under various acts such as the Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872, Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, 1936, Special Marriage Act, 1954, and Hindu Marriage Act, 1955.
  • The petition points out that under Muslim personal law, persons who have reached puberty, or the age of 15 years, are eligible to get married, while they are still minors.

Supreme Court Request for Government Response

  • The Supreme Court asked the government to respond to the NCW petition regarding the minimum age of marriage for Muslim women.
  • The NCW and the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights raised the question whether personal law can override statutory provisions of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act and other laws.

What has the Assam government decreed?

  • The Assam Cabinet recently announced that men who marry minor girls would be booked under stringent laws prescribing imprisonment from two years to life.
  • Citing the National Family Health Survey-5 report, Chief Minister said an average of 31.8% of girls in Assam get married at the “prohibited age” and 11.7% become mothers before adulthood.
  • The national average is 23.3% and 6.8% respectively.

Child Marriage in India: High Prevalence in Certain States

  • 70 districts across 13 states were identified as having a high prevalence of child marriage in an analysis by Young Lives, India, and NCPCR in 2017.
    • These states are Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal.
  • Interventions, including awareness campaigns and law enforcement, are being carried out to reduce child marriage, but much work still needs to be done.
  • Jharkhand saw a reduction in child marriage from 37.9% in 2016 (NFHS 4) to 32.2% in 2021 (NFHS 5).
  • West Bengal had 41.6% of women getting married before age 18 in both NFHS 4 and 5.
  • Madhya Pradesh showed improvement with a decrease in child marriage from 32.4% in NFHS 4 to 23.1% in NFHS 5, but still has a high infant mortality rate of 41.3 per 1000 live births.

Effects of Early Marriage:

Health Impacts:

  • Anaemia among 15-19 age group girls in India is 59% (NFHS-5)
  • Early childbearing results in poor maternal and child health, and poor nutritional status.

Education:

  • 41% of women in India have 10 or more years of schooling (NFHS-5)
  • The education level varies from state to state, e.g. in West Bengal, 32.9% of women have completed 10 or more years of schooling (NFHS-5)

Autonomy and Livelihood:

  • Girls who get married early lack reproductive choices and are denied education, autonomy, and livelihood opportunities.
  • The study by Young Lives, India-NCPCR highlights that early marriage can have severe health and socio-economic impacts on girls. Early marriage limits their reproductive choices and education, which can negatively impact their health and livelihood.

-Source: The Hindu


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