Law to raise women marriage age causes a flutter in Uttar Pradesh

The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) (PCMA) Bill, 2021, which seeks to increase the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years, has begun to show its socio-political impact in western Uttar Pradesh. On Friday, in a one of its kind ‘Lado Panchayat’ of girls in Meerut, it was decided that women would not vote for candidates opposed to the Bill in the upcoming Assembly polls.

“The Lado Panchayat was attended by hundreds of girls from different communities and after deliberations and speeches in which girls shared their experiences, the panchayat resolved that it would politically and socially boycott such candidates [who oppose the Bill],” said Sunil Jaglan, social activist and founder of Lado Panchayat.

Mr. Jaglan, who is known for advocating the “Selfie with daughter” initiative, has been holding such panchayats in Haryana and Rajasthan, and said it was the resolutions passed in these meetings that pushed the government to increase the legal age of marriage for women to 21 years. “Western U.P. together with Haryana is often called ‘greater Haryana’ and is known for deep-seated patriarchy. I tried to introduce the participation of women in khap panchayats but when my repeated requests didn’t find any favour, I decided to hold parallel panchayats of girls in 2020,” he said, adding that the Lado Panchayats have been working on girls’ education, women’s health, property rights for women and financial independence.

In the Meerut panchayat, 18-year-old Yukti presided over the panchayat and Mr. Jaglan worked as her secretary. As a mark of breaking the patriarchal hold over traditional decision-making bodies, a pagri (headgear) was placed on Ms. Yukti’s head.

Alima, a graduate of science, said the legislation was necessary for better education and health for girls. “At 18, girls could complete only Intermediate [exam] and that is not enough these days. We need this constitutional right and would not vote for those who oppose it,” she said, adding that she didn’t see any political motive in the move but that the government should also make education for girls free.

“When we don’t object to the boys getting married at 21, why should anybody object to our legal age of marriage being raised [to be] at par with the boys?” asked Aarfa, another girl at the “panchayat”.

Balwinder Kaur, a student, said that people who were saying that it would lead to an increase in the number of runaway girls were “a blot on society”. “We would send photos of bangles to their social media accounts,” she said.

Mr. Jaglan admitted that legislation alone would not help unless the government worked on raising educational and health standards of the poor and marginalised. “Otherwise, it would become like the ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ campaign where most of the funds have been spent on advertising alone,” he said.

‘Not progressive’

The PCMA Bill has created a flutter in the region. In a tweet last week, Rashtriya Lok Dal chief Jayant Singh said the legislation could not be termed as a “progressive reform”. “There could have been an argument to make the legal age of marriage gender-neutral but the idea that increasing the legal age of marriage would reduce maternal mortality is far-fetched,” he said.

Zainus Sajidin Siddiqui, a prominent cleric and the ‘Sheher Qazi’ of Meerut said that according to Sharia law the girl should have attained puberty at the time of marriage. “But over the years, most Muslims have been marrying their daughters at 18 years or above because it is good from their health and education point of view. However, I feel there can’t be a universal law in social practices. If a poor father is unable to raise his daughter properly, it is better to marry her off at 18 years, provided he has found a suitable match for her. There are many instances in which girls have studied and excelled after marriage. I am not sure whether the government has a role here,” he said.

Sokhendra Chaudhary of the Battisa khap in Shamli said there were conflicting views on the legislation. “Some people agree with the health and education aspect while others feel that considering villages are not safe for girls, it will make life more difficult for parents. Soon, a meeting of different khaps will talk a call,” he said.

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