Generational Change in India: How might raising the legal age of marriage from 18 to 21 change the lives of girls?

By Aarushi Khanna, Regional Coordinator Equal Measures 2030 and Sahaj**

India is home to the highest number of child brides in the world. UNICEF estimates that almost half of the child marriages in the world happen in South Asia, 1-in-3 of which are in India[1]. The existing legal framework sets the minimum legal age of marriage for girls in India at 18 which the current political leadership is considering revising to 21. An announcement in this regard was recently made by the Indian Prime Minister in August 2020. Women’s rights organisations and gender equality advocates have expressed their apprehension about the proposed change in the law.

Decisions around marriage in India are governed by a complex set of compounding factors: poverty; dowry where the younger the bride, the lower the dowry expectation; a way to protect the family honour; a means to prevent rape and pre-marital sex; and perceptions around labour and productivity[2]. All these factors serve as obstacles to conforming to the child marriage law. This is also the reason families consider education for young girls as less of a priority and more of a futile investment since girl’s productive capacities are often believed to benefit her marital family. The practise of early marriage is often justified by parents and guardians as a means of securing girls’ future and protecting them from the risk of physical and sexual violence. The law in its current form is also used by parents and community members to control and punish girls from choosing their own partner. In reality, it is a means of exercising control over young women’s bodily autonomy.

Though declining, the practise of child marriage is clearly rampant in India. Even 40 years after the enactment of the current Child Marriage Prohibition Act, the number of young women to be married under 18 remains extremely high, 1-in-4 [3]. The proportion of women aged 20–24 who were married before age 18 was 50% in 1992–93, 47% in 2005–06 and only saw a noticeable dip of 19% between 2005 and 2015[4]. Increased access to education, increased literacy of mothers, and government investment were contributing factors that have enabled this impressive dip in the last decade. India’s progress has been strong but not fast enough to eliminate the practise by 2030.

So why is the government looking to revise the age of marriage law?

Two reasons:

  • To achieve better maternal health outcomes: Early marriage in India is linked to early pregnancy and the subsequent increased risk of maternal mortality. The government is of the view that increasing age at marriage would delay age at first pregnancy and would lead to better maternal and child health outcomes.
  • The other compelling argument supports demographics: Delaying age of marriage is linked to delaying age at pregnancies and likely to reduce the overall number of pregnancies[5].

Sahaj, our partner in India is of the view that this approach is rather simplistic and removed from the ground reality. Improved maternal and child health outcomes rely on financial stability, good nutrition, and level of education and not just the age at pregnancy. Being part of the national and state level advocacy on the issue, Sahaj believes that the conversation needs to focus on factors that enable young women to be empowered to make informed decisions. Over the last decade India has seen a decline in both child marriage and fertility, these shifts have not been an outcome of legislative changes but a result of investment and interventions in health, education, skilling, and financial inclusion. The government must be cognizant of these factors and recognise that a legal intervention at this point is unnecessary.

In my opinion changing the age at marriage won’t lead to a reduction in maternal mortality. The real cause for that is the lack of and poor quality of maternal health services available.” 18 years old, peer educator, Vadodara, Gujarat

So, what can the government do? Here is a list of other areas that the government might focus on to eliminate this harmful practice by 2030.

  • Invest in improving education outcomes for girls. At the current pace of change an estimated 68% of girls ages 20–24 will have completed secondary education by 2030[6]. All barriers that lead to increased dropouts by girls must be identified and addressed to ensure that every girl completes secondary education by 2030.

  • Improve access to comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) to promote bodily autonomy, increased decision making and healthy sexual behaviours and activities that are linked to a decrease in risky behaviour and contribute to eliminating harmful practices. School closures due to Covid-19 are further hindering the delivery of CSE and reproductive health information.

  • Invest more to ensure universal access to quality contraception, maternal health services, and safe abortion services. India’s progress on meeting contraception needs of married women only improved by 6.9% between 2008 and 2018[7]. Reproductive health services have been severely impacted by Covid-19 and are likely to impact progress on contraceptive access across India.

  • Create job opportunities. The pandemic triggered a migration crisis in India. The announcement of the lockdown resulted in massive job losses of daily wage laborers who had migrated to large cities for work. It is estimated that over 10.6 million migrant workers returned to their home state with no further income prospects[8]. In such times of socio-economic uncertainty, migrant parents with young daughters are marrying them off early to secure their future and ensure their well-being.

  • Listen to girls and keep their interest at the centre of all policy and programme. Covid-19 has led to major disruption in the education system with the closure of schools and their lives, increasing risk of early marriage and other harmful practices. When Sahaj spoke to young women in different parts of Vadodara (Gujarat) about their thoughts on proposed change in law they said….

It’s my appeal to the government to change the education system, improve the quality of teaching in government schools, provide compulsory computer training, provide scholarships and vocational training to start businesses and work so girls are not a financial burden on their family and can negotiate life decisions.” 21 years old, Vadodara, Gujarat

India has committed to eliminating the practice of child marriage by 2030 as a part of the Sustainable Development Agenda. Covid-19 is adding another layer of complexity, there is a fear that years of progress made on the issue may rescind. The children’s helpline in India has already reported a 17% increase in distress calls related to early marriage in June-July this year compared to 2019[8]. In this context India must prioritise improving access to education, quality sexual and reproductive health and nutrition while empowering young women and girls.”

**Members of the Sahaj team include Hemal Shah, Nilangi Sardeshpande, Rashmi Deshpande, Renu Khanna, Vaishali Zararia

[1] marriage#:~:text=While%20the%20prevalence%20of%20girls,the%20prevalence%20of%20the%20practice.



[4] National Family Health Survey — 2,3,4 estimates


[6] Equal Measures 2020 Data hub 

[7] Sahaj Bending the Curve Factsheet, 2020


“Simply changing the law will not end child marriage, it is critical to ensure that the law is being effectively implemented” Misiyah, Director of Institut KAPAL Perempuan

In conversation with Misiyah, Director of Institut KAPAL Perempuan: Eliminating the practise of child marriage in Indonesia

A year has passed since the landmark move, a lot has happened in Indonesia. In September 2019, the Indonesian parliament unanimously voted to raise the legal minimum age of marriage for girls by three years to 19. Indonesian law previously allowed girls as young as age 16 and men at 19 to get married. An exception in the law were cases where parents could request religious courts or local officials to permit marriages of girls younger than 16. This disharmony in legal systems meant that in many cases there were no minimum age requirements for girls’ marriage. The parliament’s decision was a big win for the feminist movement and a hope for a bright future for the girls and women of Indonesia.

We recently spoke to Misiyah, Director of Institut KAPAL Perempuan, our partner in Indonesia, who are at the forefront of the movement to outlaw child marriage, about their journey as advocates and progress on effectively implementing the law to realise their goal of ending child marriage.

Indonesia has the 8th highest number of child marriages in world. Why are the numbers so high and why is the practise so common?

Child marriage is a complex practice, it is rooted in cultural beliefs and customs, that are linked to various other structural factors and social determinants. The National Socio-economic Survey and UNICEF show that girls, and children from poor families, in rural areas, and with low education are more vulnerable to child marriage[i]. KAPAL’s research shows immense social stigma for young women marrying after age 20, religion also dictates that it is better to marry young. This makes it extremely hard to address attitudes and norms that make child marriage acceptable.

The practise of child, early and forced marriage is a pervasive and serious problem in Indonesia. In the last ten years, the child marriage rate in Indonesia fell slightly, just by 3.5 %, but in 22 provinces the prevalence of child marriage remains above the national average of 10.82% in 2020.

It has been a year since the monumental change in age of marriage in Indonesia. What happened after? What would you say have been key moments and challenges since then?

After the law was revised, the government, NGOs, and other stakeholders shifted efforts towards ensuring that everyone knew about the changed law. Sensitisation campaigns began and are still ongoing as many hard-to-reach regions are still uninformed. It has been particularly challenging to build the awareness among people, as well as government officials, religious leaders, traditional elders, scholars, public figures, and journalists.

We all know that simply changing the law will not end child marriage, it is critical to ensure that the law is being effectively implemented. There are several efforts being made across the government machinery to strengthen the revised law. For instance, the National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas) developed the National Strategy for Child Marriage Prevention to be implemented by relevant government ministries. The Supreme Court issued regulations on Guidelines for Court Hearing of Petitions for Marriage Dispensation in support of the revised law. Local governments have also acted by issuing local regulations to prevent and address child marriage. Regulations and plans are important but not enough, the revised law needs to be integrated across all government programs, with adequate budget allocated for preventing and responding to child marriage.

Monitoring the implementation of the revised law right down to the lowest tier is very critical at this moment and continues to be a major challenge. Data plays an important role here. The data that the government currently holds is not inclusive and mostly limited only to the provincial level (sub national). We as an organisation have focused on generating alternative data from a gender perspective in a participatory manner. Our data is designed and collected to fill the vacuum and inform government processes.

At KAPAL we have been generating data at the village level (lowest tier) by building capacity of local women and stakeholders on data collection methods and tools to consistently generate, synthesise and disseminate data. The participatory nature of data collection creates a sense of shared ownership and offers validation. KAPAL has also been providing legal training to women leaders to address cases of child marriage at the village level. The field workers empowered with knowledge and skills are now advocating against child marriage in their own communities.

An increase in child marriage rates has been identified as an unspoken effect of Covid-19. What has been the impact of Covid-19 on women and girl’s decision-making ability on marriage in Indonesia?

Even before the pandemic, women and girls had limited agency. Amid Covid-19, women and girls in Indonesia appear to have even less decision-making power on marriage. We are seeing a spike in cases of violence against women and child marriage.

Many factors affect a woman or girl’s ability to make important decisions on their lives, including marriage. A simple example concerns schooling decisions in families on who gets to continue to higher levels of education. In a family with a son and daughter, the son’s education would be given priority due to our deeply entrenched patriarchal belief system. Similarly, in terms of marriage, women and girls are denied the freedom to make their own choices and are often unable to say no to marriage at an early age.

The Covid-19 pandemic changed the way in which we live and work. We have had to alter our approach to advocacy and capacity building, shifting everything online. At KAPAL Perempuan we launched emergency responses to the pandemic. Our efforts have focused on educating the public on health and gender issues, delivering food and other relief aid, promoting the use of online media with specific attention to communities unreached by the internet, produce and distribute face masks and ensure that gender issues are addressed in Covid-19 responses. The impact of Covid-19 is strongly felt in our work at KAPAL as well as at an individual level.

What does the road ahead look like? What more needs to be done to ensure that girls are empowered to negotiate and exercise autonomy on decisions around marriage?

There is always hope and optimism for Indonesia to move towards eliminating child marriage. Indonesia has committed to eliminating the practice by 2030 in line with the sustainable development goals. A lot needs to be done to realise our vision.

Commitment and collective action between stakeholders are key to making Indonesia child marriage-free. Monitoring the implementation of law becomes crucial to ensuring that the new minimum age of marriage set at 19 for both men and women is enforced. Most importantly, women and girls need to be made aware of their rights and feel empowered to exercise autonomy on decisions concerning their bodies and lives, especially in relation to marriage.[i]