I came across this quote once that said,
If a woman is of a certain age and is unmarried, then that’s a personal failure. However, if a man of the same age is unmarried, he probably hasn’t found the ‘right one yet.
What is marriage?
To lay it down in simple words, marriage is the social institution under which two people establish their decision to live together by legal commitments, religious ceremonies, etc.
Even in its basic definition, marriage focuses only on the will and decision of the two people getting married. However, that’s not the case. Even today, in the 21 st century, when a woman wants to get married, her decision is often given the last priority if it is even considered.
The archaic idea that women getting married by a certain age is more of a NEED than a WANT will probably always exist. It is one of the many social issues women STILL face. Society has proclaimed that women have to get married and carry on a family’s legacy because it’s all part of the culture. Generations of women have followed this principle of getting married early and have avoided their preferences and likes in countless ways. However, if any woman dared to follow her heart and decided to marry later, the burden of her disappointing her parents and everyone around her was enough to make her confidence crumble.
As per the Special Marriage Act, 1954 and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006:
the current minimum age of marriage is 21 for men and 18 for women.
The first question that comes to my mind is,
“Why the age disparity?”
Why was it not 21 for both men and women?
Women go through significant biological changes if they get pregnant right after marriage. Keeping that in mind, wouldn’t it be better if we waited for girls to mature a bit more emotionally instead of just having them married at the tender age of 18?
However, there are two sides to every coin.
In an interview published in The Hindu, Madhu Mehra [Executive Director of Partners for Law in Development India, and co-founder of the National Coalition for Advocating for Adolescent Concerns] said: “It is important that girls are not pushed into marriage early; marriage should not be compulsory for them to gain social and economic status. Yet, an increase in the minimum age of marriage to 21 years will be counterproductive. The minimum age of marriage does not mean mandatory age. It only signifies that there could be criminal prosecution under the child marriage law below that age. Now, to increase the age of marriage to 21 years would mean that girls will have no say in personal matters until they are 21."
In research at Partners for Law in Development, they looked at ten years of use of the child marriage law. Overwhelmingly, parents used the law against eloping daughters. It has become a tool for parental control and the punishment of boys or men whom girls choose as their husbands. So, most cases that are taken to court are self-arranged marriages. And only one-third of the cases relate to arranged marriages, which parents or husbands sometimes bring to dissolve or nullify marriages that have broken down because of domestic violence, dowry or compatibility issues. So, nowhere is age an issue in people’s minds.
An increase in age to 21 would mean further persecution of girls until 21 years.
We’ve seen this in the Supreme Court and the Kerala High Court in the Hadiya case, where her parents challenged an adult woman’s decision to marry. This is how it plays out in the Indian context.”
This is exactly the problem that needs to be spoken about, parents and society, in general, will go to the extent of misusing the law to ensure that a woman has no say while deciding when to get married and whom to get married to.
This, however, is the tip of the iceberg.
Despite there being numerous laws in place for the minimum marital age of women, estimates suggest that each year, at least 1.5 million girls under 18 get married in India. It makes it the home to the most significant number of child brides in the world - accounting for a third of the global total. Nearly 16 per cent of adolescent girls aged 15-19 are currently married (Source: Unicef)
Talking about the women of the educated and financially independent section of the society -
As per societal judgements, are expected to get married between the age of 22-25. Even if you fight off saying you have your life to live a little more, your parents are determined to get you married at least by 29. If you reach 30, there are constant worries about how others will react!
If you chose your career over your marriage, the chances are that you’ll be forever labelled as a rebel. To escape from this, women restrain themselves and their wishes.
This sort of pressure isn’t really seen for the men. An unmarried man in his 30s is seen as a career-driven, highly ambitious, and focused individual. Whereas an unmarried woman, even if she is better accomplished than the man, is seen as someone incapable of multitasking and having an equally thriving family life. The focus shifts from her competence at work to her incompetence of not being able to find a husband.
This extremely partial mindset roots from the beginning of time as daughters were always considered a burden on their families, and the best way to get rid of the burden was to get them married as soon as possible. In the olden days, girls were married off young because they were financially dependent on their parents. Most of them didn’t get a chance to get educated enough to earn for themselves, and hence were often seen as a burden. Though it is not a valid reason, at least parents then HAD a reason!!
What troubles me more now is,
What’s their reason now?
If your daughter has a successful life and is emotionally and financially independent or is willing to work towards that independence, what’s the rush?
It saddens me to see girls around me doing so well for themselves, still stressed over their age and the fact that their parents are pressuring them to meet random guys because that’s what will make or break their social status.
Everything she has worked for, late nights spent studying, working, making her parents proud, suddenly takes a back seat because she is “of age” but does not want to get married.
I am not trying to throw shade on anyone’s parents. All they are doing is looking out for their daughter. All they want is for her to do what is supposedly the right thing to do at her age. Their only fault is giving in to the expectations of what society wants them to do. That is the reason why parents give themselves when they pressure their financially independent educated daughters to get married. A lot of them see the unreasonable stress that they are adding to their daughter's life, but they would rather stay in denial than prioritise their child over societal constructs.
Some might go to the extent of getting their daughter married to a complete stranger just because she is almost 30!
Post 25, a girls age is more like a ticking time bomb that is going to blast and destroy her life unless she gets married before 30. Doesn’t matter who she is getting married to? Hopefully, she is lucky enough and gets married to a decent guy.
Another all-time favourite reason to pressurise a girl is- “You will be passed your prime child-bearing age”. This brings up another question,
“What exactly is the childbearing age?”
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, a woman is born will all the eggs she will ever have in her life - one to two million. The numbers decline with age as women start menstruating. A woman can get pregnant all the while she is menstruating. But her fertility starts dropping at the age of 32, and this process fastens as she reached the age of 37.
Teenage is when a woman is most fertile, making teenage biologically the best age to get pregnant. But it is only a woman’s body that is ready but not the rest of her.
If you are a girl, it will always be assumed that you are going to want to have kids, it is also expected of you to be a modern woman and have a successful career.
God forbid if you say that you don’t want kids and you might just be shunned from society. So I won't even talk about that scenario, but the ones who do want to have kids now need to worry about the ticking clock again.
With advancements in technology, it is easy to have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby even if you are older. One benefit of having kids in the late 30s is that these kids tend to have better cognitive skills than the ones born to younger moms. Older moms are financially stable and have higher levels of education, which may be a factor behind these kids being smarter.
A woman is never too old to have a baby until she reached the stage of menopause, around 50 years, says AGOC. So, it’s entirely possible to have a child even if you are 50. The advancements in technologies have made it possible for women in their 40s and even 50s to become a mother.
However, with absolutely no regard to the advancements in medical sciences, society wants to stay in denial believing that 100% of the pregnancies before 30 will be successful. All post 30 are going to be unsuccessful. The sad part is a lot of women too give in to this fear and rush into one of the most important life decision- Marriage.
Despite all of these laws and medical advancements in place, women are still being forced into early marriages. Parents doing so do not even realise the impact it might have on their health, career etc
Studies show that early marriage is associated with severe adverse health and social outcomes, including compromised sexual, reproductive, and maternal health, increased risk of depression and suicidality, greater risk of intimate partner violence, decreased social and physical mobility, and decreased autonomy in decision-making within and outside of the household. Early marriage also compromises girls’ ability to attend school post-marriage, exposing them to an array of adverse social and health outcomes associated with education cessation.
If you are the family of a girl who is “coming of age” and are worried about her marriage,
Instead, put in all that energy ensuring that your daughter is independent in all aspects of her life, give her that support to help her build her confidence, to be able to speak her mind.
Do not pressurise her into doing things that you, or some random family member, thinks will make her happy. Instead, listen to what she actually wants and help her with that and that is probably the best gift you could give her, by supporting her dreams, because no one in the society would, that is for sure.
It is high time we realise that a girl's social standing has nothing to do with a ring on her finger. Her self worth has nothing to do with the man she is married to. Marriage should be out of WANT, not NEED. It should be about two equals wanting to spend the rest of their lives together, not being forced to.
And lastly, if you are a girl, who is in a dilemma because of the pressure you are under for marriage, always remember that you take the call. It is really important to realise that the only proper time to get married is when you want to. No pressure, no judgements, but only your decision. Marriage is a lifetime commitment, and you should have a say in when or who you marry.
About the Author
This blog is written by Shreya as a part of the Stand Up For Stree Campaign by Limitless Stree to act against Gender Based Violence. Shreya is a Limitless Stree member who is inspired to act against Gender Based Violence. She is an advocate of SDG 5 and wants to contribute towards women empowerment
Shreya Sharma Limitless Stree Member