Introducing the bill, an assertive Smriti Irani, the minister for women and child development, made it clear that the bill seeks to override all existing laws, including “any custom, usage or practice” governing the parties in relation to marriage. The move will involve bringing all related laws, including personal laws, in consonance with amendments. These include the Indian Christian Marriage Act; the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act; the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act; the Special Marriage Act; the Hindu Marriage Act; and the Foreign Marriage Act.
Although Irani said that the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021 would be sent to a parliamentary standing committee, strong reaction by some on the opposition benches and her defiance provided an early peek into what might unfold in the deliberations in the committee room, the House and, most importantly, in the public arena. In fact, the introduction of the bill was preceded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi taking on the opponents of the legislation at a public meeting of women in Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh on Tuesday.
Protesting opposition members hit out at the government for introducing the bill in a “hurry” and “without any consultation with stakeholders” and demanded that the bill be sent to a standing committee.
Even as she said that the government would have sent the bill to the standing committee anyway, Irani strongly justified the bill was a “decisive step” for achieving parity between the ages when men and women can marry which had been 75 years in the making. She scoffed at the allegation that the bill was communal. She asserted that it is a secular measure which will be “uniformly applicable across all religions, castes and creed overriding any custom or any law which seeks to discriminate against women”.
Irani buttressed her contention by recalling Supreme Court’s observations in the “Independent Thought versus Union of India” case of 2010. She said that the court had called the Prevention of Child Marriage Act, 2006 a secular law. “… And from the point of view of Muslim Personal Law, Hindu Marriage Act and all other religions, castes and communities, women should get equal rights in terms of age of marriage,” she added.
“In a democracy, we are 75 years late in providing equal rights to men and women to enter into matrimony. In the 19th century, the age of marriage for girls was 10 years, till 1940 the age was raised from 12 to 14 years and till 1978, girls were married at the age of 15. Through this amendment, for the first time, men and women will be able to make a decision on marriage at the age of 21, keeping in mind the right to equality,” she added.
Making a strong case for the amendments, Irani cited the National Family Health Survey-5 findings to assert that it shows that 7% of the girls aged between 15 and 18 years were found to be pregnant and nearly 23% of the girls in the 20-24 age group were married below the age of 18 years. She cited research to point that from 2015 to 2020, 20 lakh child marriages have been stopped.
In the statement of objects and reasons of the bill, it has been highlighted how underage marriage remains a concern. “The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, was replaced by the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, to prohibit solemnisation of child marriages, but this highly pernicious practice is still not completely eradicated from our society. Hence, there is an urgent need to tackle this societal issue and to bring in reforms,” it stated.
There are also imperatives for lowering maternal mortality rate and infant mortality rate, as well as improvement of nutrition levels and sex ratio at birth, as these would promote possibilities of responsible parenthood for both father and mother, making them more capable of taking better care of their children, the bill says. “It is also important to bring down the incidence of teenage pregnancies, which are not only harmful for women’s overall health, but also result in more miscarriages and stillbirths.”
The amendments to the bill will become effective two years from the date it receives the President’s nod so as to provide sufficient opportunity to one and all in the collective efforts and inclusive growth, and to make effective other provisions immediately.
The bill, which seeks to amend the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, provides that anyone married before the legal age of marriage (21) will be able to seek annulment of the marriage up to five years instead of the two years currently provided under law from the time of attaining majority (18 years).