Saturday, April 12, 2014

Age at marriage in India

Today I saw an article where Iraq is considering allowing child marriages. And recently there have been numerous stories in the press about Narendra Modi being married at 17. It set me thinking about marriage trends in our country.

Not many people know that when Gandhi married Kasturba, he was 13, and she was 14. That was in 1882; and it was quite the norm at that time for people to marry young.
Gandhi and Kasturba
Based on his own life experiences, Gandhi concluded that child marriage was a "wicked custom" resulting in uneducated girls, early motherhood and sickly children. 

Gandhi refused to accept commonly held beliefs about protecting women's chastity through early marriage. "Why is there all this morbid anxiety about female purity?", he said. "Have women any say in the matter of male purity? We hear nothing of women's anxiety about men's chastity. Why should men arrogate to themselves the right to regulate female purity?"

More importantly, he said "It is good to swim in the waters of tradition, but to sink in them is suicide".

Thankfully the average age of marriage in India has improved vastly. When the British left India in 1947, the average age of marriage was 13 or 14. Currently we're at 21.2 years as the effective age of marriage (the age when marriage is consummated). We've come quite a distance in the last 60 years, especially if you look at the size of our population, and what it takes to change a whole nation's average in 50 years. It's nothing short of a revolution. But an average is just that; an average. It means there are many people below it. There are still many young brides and many young mothers.

Tougher implementation of legislation seems like the place to begin. There is legislation in place, called the Prevention of Child Marriages Act. The legal age of marriage today is 18 for girls and 21 for boys, and offenders are punishable with fines and imprisonment. If the boy is over 18 years of age at the time of marriage, he will be treated as an offender and can be punished. The guardians or parents of the child, including any member of any organisation or association that associates with child marriage or is negligent about preventing it can be punished. Those performing, participating or abetting child marriage can be prosecuted. Child marriages also can be legally annulled.

While the legal bedrock is necessary, prosecution is not the real solution. The underlying social and economic issues need to change. Thankfully again, there is a long history of social change and reform in India. While we protest today's wrongs, we must also rejoice that things are better for us today than there were yesterday. The country is changing. Women are changing. The old guard is actually bewildered by the speed of change.

The photo below is of Lakshmi Sargara, from Rohet near Jodhpur. In what is thought to be the first case of its kind in India, Lakshmi had her child "marriage" legally annulled in 2012.  She was married at the age of 1 to a boy 2 years old. When she turned 18, she appealed to the courts to declare her marriage void. The Jodhpur court supported her claim. She is now married to a man of her choice.
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