Marriage Laws for Minors

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    Context

    • Supreme Court would examine whether minor girls, can marry on the basis of custom or personal law when such marriages are considered an offence in the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA), 2006.
    • The Assam Cabinet recently announced that men who marry minor girls would be booked under stringent laws prescribing imprisonment from two years to life imprisonment.

    Current status of Marriage Laws

    • The legal age of marriage is 18 and 21 for a woman and a man respectively, and marriage at a younger age comes under the banned practice of child marriage. However, this is not uniform across communities.
    • Under the Muslim personal law in India, persons who have attained puberty are eligible to get married i.e. on attaining the age of 15 years, while they are still minor.
    • Under the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, 1936, Special Marriage Act, 1954, and  Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872, the minimum age of marriage for a man is 21 years and for a woman, it is 18 years. 
    • As per the PCMA, 2006 Child Marriage is prohibited in India. Marriage below the prescribed age is illegal and the perpetrators of forced child marriage can be punished.
    • The PCMA does not have any provision that says the  PCMA law would override any other laws on the issue thus setting a discrepancy between the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act and the Muslim personal law on the minimum age of marriage

    Changes demanded in Legal Age

    • The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) filed a petition against a recent order of the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
    • Punjab and Haryana High Court order of June 2022 said a girl, attaining the age of 15 years and above, could be married on the basis of Muslim personal law, irrespective of the provisions of the POCSO Act, 2012.
    • Arguments given by High Court :
      • The HC said the special marriage law does not override personal laws, Muslim personal law will prevail.
    • Supreme Court said the High Court order would not act as a judicial precedent for other courts. 
    • National Commission for Women (NCW) has filed a petition in SC to make the minimum age of marriage for Muslim women on par with persons belonging to other faiths.
    • The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021 has sought to amend the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA), 2006, to increase the minimum age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years.
    • The Supreme Court has appealed to Parliament to lower the age of consent under the POCSO Act and the IPC which set it at 18 years, thus criminalising all adolescent consensual sexual activity.
    • Many cases of sexual assault reported in the country under POCSO and other laws dealing with 16-18 years-old children are consensual and are reported by a girl’s family who disapproves of the teenagers’ conduct.

    States where Child Marriages are high

    • There are 70 districts spread across 13 States including Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal where the prevalence of child marriage is high.
    • As per the National Family Health Survey-5 report (NFHS-5), 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. 
    • West Bengal (41.6%) and Bihar (40.8%) have the highest incidences of child marriage.
    • Madhya Pradesh has seen a reduction in child marriage, from 32.4% in NFHS-4 to 23.1% in NFHS-5.

    Impacts of Child Marriage

    • Early childbearing could result in poor maternal and child health and poor nutritional status. As per NFHS-5, 59% of Indian girls in the 15-19 group suffered from anemia.
    • Education:  The national average of women with 10 or more years of schooling is 41% in NFHS-5. Those women who complete their schooling often decide to raise children with better care and nutrition.
    • High Fertility Rate: Due to high childbearing capacity Minor girls are more likely to have a large family than the replacement rate of 2.1.
    • Poverty and Poor Management: Due to early responsibility to manage the family appropriate skill set is not acquired leading to poverty and poor family planning.
    • Less Autonomy and reproductive choices for women: Women exercise fewer decision-making powers in family matters, and have less ability to make reproductive choices due to a patriarchal mindset of family members as per Young Lives, India-NCPCR study. 

    Way Forward

    • A 2008 Law Commission report on family law reform recommended a uniform age of marriage for boys and girls at 18 years and not 21. It held that since 18 is the age at which a citizen can vote, they should be allowed to marry at that age too.
    • The legal marriage age of a woman should be based on the structure of society which provides ideal growth to her in the field of education, provides a skill set to increase employability, and increase her decision-making power.

    Source: The Hindu