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Increasing The Legal Age Of Marriage From 18 To 21 For Girls

Child marriage has long been a barrier in India. Even after 75 years of independence, child marriage continues to be a widespread social evil in many parts of the country. Women aged 20 to 24 who marry before the age of 18 account for 14.7% of urban women and 27% of rural women, according to the National Family Health Survey.[1]

The Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 set the marriage age at 14 for girls and 18 for boys. It is commonly referred to as 'The Sarda Act,' after Har Bilas Sarda, who introduced the Act in 1929. In 1978, the Act was amended to raise the marriageable age for girls from 14 to 18 years old and for boys from 18 to 21 years old.[2]

According to the Hindi Marriage Act of 1955, "the bridegroom has completed the age of 21 and the bride has completed the age of 18 at the time of marriage." Christians face the same restrictions under the Indian Christian Marriage Act of 1872. Muslims recognize the legality of marriage between minors who have reached puberty, which is assumed to be 15 years. The Special Marriage Act of 1954 and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006 set the minimum age of consent for marriage at 18 for girls and 21 for boys.

Historical Background Of Child Marriage

There is evidence of young people living together with the freedom to choose whom they want to be with as early as India's history is known to have existed. The concept of women's liberty evolved during the Middle Ages as society underwent a gradual change. During the Middle Ages, girls were marrying at younger ages, and it became more common in Indian society for girls as young as six or eight to marry. So, even though the daughter stayed with her parents until puberty, parents choose their children's spouses at a very young age.

The society established standards of conduct for girls, which they were expected to abide by. Their purity evolved into a representation of their family's pride. Therefore, the custom of marrying them young began in order to preserve the family's honor. When Muslim rulers arrived, the early marriage age for women had already decreased to 6 years from its original limit of 12 years.

According to legend, unmarried Hindu girls were often raped by Muslims during the Muslim invasions (1000 years ago), which prompted people to marry off their daughters at a young age in order to protect them. Child marriage was common during the Sultanate, and women's status was very low.

The Dham sutras state that a girl should wait to get married until she has reached puberty. If the father does not marry his daughter within three years of the time she reaches puberty, she will be able to find a husband on her own, according to Manu Smriti. According to Medhatithi's Bhashya, a girl should get married at the age of eight. In accordance with Tolkappiyam, girls should marry at the age of twelve and boys at sixteen.

The Prohibition Of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021

The central government established a task force (Chairperson: Ms. Jaya Jaitly) in June 2020 to investigate the relationship of age of marriage and motherhood with (i) health, medical well-being, and nutritional status of mother and child during pregnancy, birth, and thereafter, (ii) key parameters such as Infant Mortality Rate (IMR), Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR, Total Fertility Rate (TFR), Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB), Child Sex Ratio.

The Task Force was also tasked with making policy recommendations to encourage women to pursue higher education. According to media reports, the Committee submitted its report in December 2020, proposing raising the marriage age for females to 21.[3] On December 21, 2021, the Bill was referred to the Standing Committee on Education, Women, Children, Youth, and Sports.

The Indian government introduced the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021 in December 2021 as a step towards ending this social evil by legally raising the marriage age of women from 18 to 21 by amending the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006.

According to the bill, after the words "citizens of India without and beyond India" in sub-section 2 of section 1 of the 2006 Act, these words "notwithstanding anything contrary or inconsistent therewith contained in the Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1874; the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, 1936; the Shariat Application Act, 1937; the Special Marriage Act, 1954; the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955; and the Foreign Marriage Act, 1969, or any other custom, usage, or practice" Because the definition of a child varies from one Act to the next, the bill proposes to define a child as "a male or female who has not completed 21 years of age" and will only apply to child marriage.

Positive Aspects Of The Amendment

The Prohibition of Child Marriage Amendment Act of 2021 addresses the issue of child marriage while also protecting children's rights and well-being. Here are some of the act's positive aspects:
  1. Increased marriageable age: The act raises the minimum marriage age for girls from 18 to 21 years, bringing it in line with the minimum marriage age for boys. This change ensures that both girls and boys have equal access to education, personal development, and making informed life decisions.
  2. Protection of children's rights: By prohibiting child marriages, the act recognizes and protects children's fundamental rights. It protects them from the physical, emotional, and psychological damage caused by early marriages, such as limited educational opportunities, and health risks.
  3. Promoting education: Delaying the marriage age for girls allows them to continue their education and gain valuable skills for their personal and professional development. Education empowers girls, allowing them to break the cycle of poverty, contribute to society, and make informed life decisions.
  4. Improved health outcomes: Early marriages frequently have negative health consequences for girls, such as increased maternal mortality rates, a higher risk of complications during childbirth, and limited access to healthcare. By reducing the prevalence of early pregnancies and ensuring girls' physical and mental well-being, the act promotes better health outcomes.
  5. Women empowerment: The act empowers girls by allowing them to fully participate in social, economic, and political life. Girls have more time to develop life skills, pursue higher education, explore career options, and contribute to their communities and the nation as a whole by delaying marriage.
  6. Gender equality: The act promotes gender equality by equalizing the minimum marriage age for boys and girls. It challenges traditional gender norms that perpetuate discrimination and inequality and promotes a more equitable society with equal opportunities and rights for both genders.
  7. Protection from exploitation: Early marriages frequently involve a power imbalance and can result in the exploitation of girls. The act establishes legal safeguards and support systems to prevent and address child marriages, ensuring the safety and well-being of children.
  8. Awareness and social change: The act also raises awareness about the issue of child marriage and its negative effects on society. Addressing this issue through legislation encourages a broader societal dialogue and promotes attitudinal and behavioral changes, challenging the social norm of child marriage.

Negative Aspects Of The Amendment

While the Prohibition of Child Marriage Amendment Act, 2021 has many positive aspects, it is important to recognize some of the Act's potential negative aspects or concerns:
  1. Enforcement difficulties:
    Enforcing the act and monitoring compliance can be difficult, especially in remote or marginalized areas where child marriage is common. Limited resources, infrastructure, and awareness may impede the act's practical implementation, leading to an increase in child marriages.
  2. Limited focus on boys:
    While the act raises the marriage age for girls, it does not address the issue of child marriage comprehensively by including boys in the same provisions. This may have unintended consequences or disparities, such as boys continuing to engage in child marriages without facing legal consequences.
  3. Ignoring social and economic factors:
    Child marriage is frequently the result of complex factors such as poverty, illiteracy, limited economic opportunities, and societal pressures. While the act addresses the age issue, it may not address the underlying social and economic issues that contribute to child marriages effectively, potentially limiting its impact.
  4. Limited assistance for affected individuals:
    While the act's primary goal is to prevent child marriages, it may fall short of adequately supporting and rehabilitating individuals who have already been subjected to child marriage. Adequate measures for providing survivors of child marriages with counseling, education, and job opportunities may be required to facilitate their reintegration into society.
  5. Unintended pregnancy consequences:
    By raising the marriage age, there may be cases where teenage pregnancies occur outside of marriage, potentially leading to social stigma, limited access to healthcare, and reduced support systems for unmarried teenage mothers.
  6. Unintended consequences:
    The act's strict age restrictions may have unintended consequences in some cases. For example, it may incentivize families to conceal or falsify individuals' ages in order to avoid legal restrictions, increasing the risk of underage marriages occurring without legal scrutiny.

The National Family Health Survey 2019�21 reports that 23% of women get married before turning 18 years old which shows that the PCMA, 2006 has not been successful in preventing child marriages, especially among the poor.[4]

However, the Prohibition of child marriage Act, 2021 is a step in the right direction because it gives girls the chance to be goal-oriented and active in their academic lives. However, good intentions do not guarantee a positive outcome. We cannot ensure greater participation of girls in higher education or the workforce simply by raising the marriage age to 21.

It is necessary to make consistent efforts towards gender equality and women's empowerment through education, making sure they receive their fair share of property, giving them safe places to work, and generally treating them equally. Ordinarily, laws that go against social norms fail. This law is also doomed to be a paper tiger unless we strengthen the mechanisms surrounding its implementation and combine them with extensive community mobilization and awareness campaigns.

The Bill has two sharp edges. Although the bill may have a lot of advantages, it also has some drawbacks that should not be ignored. No modifications to the implementational mechanism are mentioned in the amendment. So how will a law that failed to enforce the minimum age of 18 succeed when the age is raised further?

Even if the bill is approved, marriage will continue to be valid until one of the parties obtains an annulment, just like it did under the previous law. Every child born from such a marriage shall also be treated as a legitimate child for all intents and purposes. The marriage is therefore only voidable, not void. To have their marriage annulled in their individual capacity, only the concerned party-either the child bride or the child groom-may file a petition.

For minors, the petition can only be submitted through a guardian or the married child's next best friend, who must be an adult, with the assistance of the child marriage prohibition officer. It's simpler to say than to do. The majority of the time, minors' guardians marry them off. Never would the same guardians approve of the annulment. Since they are under their families' physical and emotional control, it is uncommon for them to be in a position to contact the authorities through a friend.

Laws alone cannot bring about social development; awareness is the key.

The primary objective of the bill, according to the Parliamentary Standing Committee, is to increase women's agency. So, in order to further the goals of this Bill, the Parliament should pass supplemental legislation aimed at enhancing women's health, education, and financial standing for the advancement of women between the ages of 15-20 (especially for the lower-earning population, given that this stratum is barely managing to meet the current legal age requirement of 18 years old).

  1. (accessed on 19 June, 2023)
  2. History of Child Marriage in India � Terresd'Asie, (2022), (last visited on 20 June, 2023)
  4. Increasing legal age of marriage to 21: Is it a boon or a bane for Indian women? | Mint #AskBetterQuestions ( (last visited on 21 June, 2023)

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