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'We Were Progressive in Our Thinking': Jaya Jaitly Takes on Women's Marriage Age Move Criticisms

In an interview to The Wire, the head of a 10-member task force discusses the thoughts which formed the basis of what is likely to be a bill to raise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21.

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New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government is likely to table in this session of parliament a bill to amend the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006. The purpose behind it is to raise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 – the same as the legal age for men to marry in India.

On December 15, the Union cabinet is learnt to have cleared the proposal – an idea first publicly mooted by Prime Minister Modi at his Independence Day speech in August 2020.  

By June 2020, a 10-member task force led by former Samata Party leader Jaya Jaitly was already formed by the Union Ministry for Women and Child Development to look into its feasibility. The mandate was to study “matters pertaining to age of motherhood, imperatives of lowering MMR (maternal mortality rate), improvement of nutritional levels and related issues”. 

In December 2020, the task force submitted its recommendations to the ministry, suggesting the age modification, aside from offering several other suggestions around the mandate given to them. The recommendations were also submitted to the planning body NITI Aayog and the Prime Minister’s Office.

The task force’s recommendations have not been made public yet. However, for the last three days, since the news of the cabinet nod to the task force’s recommendation for the women’s marriageable age modification has hit the headlines, there has been a range of responses to it.

In an interview to The Wire, Jaya Jaitly takes them up. Excerpts from the interview are as follows.

What were the driving thoughts behind the task force’s recommendation to the government to extend the legal marriageable age for women in India from 18 to 21?

Let me begin by saying that I can’t share everything regarding our recommendations at the moment as the government is yet to place the bill before parliament. I will tell you what our thoughts were from what I can say as of now. 

Though there was this thought (the mandate) behind setting up the task force, we didn’t pre-decide anything. But we had a clear mind, a kind of road map, to see what is the best solution, if we, at all, need such a change in the law. So the first thing was, is there gender equity in this aspect as in other fields, or in any other laws governing it?

We saw that it is there except in the law on marriage. When it comes to marriage, you put a girl in a disadvantage in terms of accessing opportunities because the law is already embedding a message to her that you need to do that only till you are 18 because after that you have another job to do. So that itself was a very powerful motivating factor for us (to suggest the recommendation). 

Of course, it takes time for society to change. None of us truly believe that a law in India works on its own. You have to have a support system for it to work and the society itself has to be motivated (to make it a success) and understand (it). 

The moment a girl is married, whether she is 16, 18 or of any age, her body is expected to reproduce.’ Photo: Sneha Rout

In order to nudge it, and, therefore, let us do the next thing of taking everyone’s views – the NGOs, the naysayers, the supporters, the lawyers, etc. apart from taking various inputs from the law, health and education ministries. 

There has also been a lot of ready statistics too. For us, 23% child marriage taking place in India (as per the National Family Health Survey-5 conducted by the Union health ministry between 2019-21) was a lot and also the high infant mortality late (35 deaths below one year for every 1,000 children born between 2019-21). These two have a direct cause and effect linkage.

The moment a girl is married, whether she is 16, 18 or of any age, her body is expected to reproduce. It happens in child marriages too (leading to high infant mortality rate). If the girl doesn’t have enough nourishment of the mind or the body, her child is going to turn out half-baked, let’s say.

Also read: Focus Should Be on Root Causes of Child Marriage, Not Increasing Marriage Age: Activists

Many years ago, former Chief Justice of India and former National Human Rights Commission chairperson Justice M. K. Venkatachaliah had told me a very important statistics, that about 64% of children in India were born malnourished because their mothers were undernourished. Aside from their body, they are also malnourished in their brains; their IQs are low. So, we have questions in front of us, say, if we have a lot of people who just don’t have a mind to do any proper work, are not sharp enough to adopt any skill because their minds are equally undernourished as their bodies, and if the mother is not educated, how does she inculcate good values, etc. in her child? There are all these factors which we had to think about, specially in the context of people saying that ‘why should girls do anything else?’.

I want to share here a personal experience from the 1970s when I was asked to teach a term at a school in Srinagar. One of the essays I had given to students was, ‘Should women work?’. While most students said they should, one girl wrote that they should stay at home. I had a long chat with her. I asked her, ‘If you are to stay only at home, do you think your schooling is of no use, and do you also think that women school teachers like me should not be there?’

That led to a discussion with her; it made her think deep and helped change her mind eventually. Mind you, that was in the early 1970s. Today, women are thinking completely differently. But the men are still stuck there.  

Is this recommendation anywhere aimed at population control?

Not at all. We did not discuss population figures, growth rate, nothing.

There was no need to discuss it because the population figures were not part of our core mandate and we certainly don’t think it was the reason (for setting up the task force). 

You may be aware that there is an alternate thought to the task force’s suggestion, particularly in terms of the abysmal MMR that several states have – which is also because of anaemia in women which can be triggered by traditional practices in several homes like giving better food to the boys rather than the girls. Some have also suggested that there should be better nourishment in the mid-day meals instead, to tackle this issue. What are your thoughts on it?

Well, this should also be there. I have said this before also that we have presented the view. It certainly needs a support system to make this law make any sense, for it to work. Just like you have, say, traffic laws, but if you don’t have (traffic) lights that work or no light at all at the crossings, or there are no cops to handle traffic or nobody is taught to drive properly, those laws will not work.

Also read: Here’s Why the Move to Increase Women’s Age of Marriage Is a Red Herring

We will have chaos on the streets and those rules will have no meaning at all then. Same with, say, murders. There is supposed to be no murder in our society but it happens. To stop it, aside from the laws, we also need better law and order system; the society must also not produce murderers, but we do. What I intend to underline here is that a law is only as good as its support system, its infrastructure, and whether it is implemented effectively. 

We had asked various ministries what programmes they have been running for (better) nutrition, education and health for both girls and boys. Whatever they gave us, we build upon it. It is easy to see statistics and react to it but what is it like on the ground?

Therefore, we had stakeholders’ meetings. NGOs were asked to organise groups of young people from their area of work and let them speak. We created questionnaires for college goers which were distributed by Jamia Millia Islamia vice-chancellor Najma Akhtar (also a task force member) across 16 universities. 

Students at a Delhi University college. Credit: PTI/Files

‘I thought the best thing would be to ask those who have their life ahead of them; why should any of us decide it.’ Photo: PTI/Files

For me, that was the second most valuable thing, to have got the views of the stakeholders rather than finding out from fuddy-duddys no matter how backward or forward they are in their thinking. I thought the best thing would be to ask those who have their life ahead of them; why should any of us decide it. We had in our stakeholders’ meetings girls and boys from rural communities, from backward areas; several of them were themselves fighting to stop such an early marriage for themselves. When we asked those stakeholder groups – the range of people in which was pretty wide – the common answer to us by both boys and girls from different religions was it should be 22 and above. 

Let me also state here that that was the research we could do in the circumstances that we were in (due to the COVID-19 pandemic). In such circumstances, nobody could have done better than that. 

Is COVID-19 the reason why the term of the task force was also extended?

We were given three months but we took six months to submit our recommendations. It was very difficult because of COVID-19; we couldn’t meet at all in person; every meeting was virtual. Also, we had to wait for the new education policy of the government.

We requested extra time from the government because we wanted to factor in whatever proposals that policy would have, especially in creating zones in very backward areas for schools and school facilities, particularly for girls. 

Also read: Policymakers Must Pay Attention to the Aspirations of India’s Adolescent Girls

Also, everyone may not necessarily be clever at their studies; such girls should be able to access vocational skills after they finish schooling. They should be able to acquire a skill that may help them be independent; people nowadays can do a tiny business on the internet itself. Why should only boys be taught internet skills and not girls in the rural areas to pick up a career?

I think we were very progressive in our thinking and in our suggestions. Of course, it always takes time to implement such recommendations; it is not just one hammer you strike and things change overnight.

Setting 21 years as a legal age for boys to get married and 18 for girls also, in a way, promotes the traditional belief that the wife should be younger than the boys. Was there a conscious thought among you to challenge that too?

Of course. Our recommendation is challenging it and so many other things. Don’t you agree it is time we challenge that thought? Society can’t be stuck in one groove where 50% of its population is looked at that way.

‘Why should only boys be taught internet skills and not girls in the rural areas to pick up a career?’. Photo: Vural Cam/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Do you think once the marriageable age of girls is raised to 21 from 18, parents invariably will be willing to, or be forced to, educate their girls and think of girls as people who can also have a career like their husbands?

Pretty much. Not many will agree to start with. But we have also said that for those who can’t afford to educate their daughters, there should be scholarships for that category. We have gone to lot of such details but I can’t share much here because they are yet to go to parliament. 

Different states have different MMRs. There is also a question now – why should say, a girl in Kerala which has a better MMR rate than Assam, not marry at 18 just because Assam has failed to have better reproductive health for their women? Do you want to react to it?

Not really, because a lot of that is also linked to what should be the role of a woman in the society. Reproductive health is very important. We have suggested that health check-up for girls and sex education should start early; many school syllabi have sex education but teachers are nervous and embarrassed to teach those chapters; that’s what many young stakeholders told us. They were told, ‘Go home and read on your own’. This is our reality.

Finally, there is the argument that if a girl can choose a parliamentarian at 18, why can’t she choose her husband at that age? Additionally, there is another reality in India. In several conservative families where girls are not allowed to choose their partners, they have the option now of taking recourse to law once they become 18. If the law is amended, they would be under parental guardianship till 21 which may put many women at a disadvantage. 

All these come from the search component which we added; there is a very good, positive campaign of the government running throughout the country to promote this idea of how it is important to beti bachao, beti padhao (‘save daughters, educate daughters’). So, extend that to make people realise that it is indeed important. Of course, there are conservative elements in the society which would not prefer it, and then we have progressive people who go towards the other end.

Eventually, whoever is responsible for policy making or is in any public work has to look for a balance and that is what we aimed for.