Sixteen-year-old Madhu had been staring at an uncertain future ever since her elder sister Guddi was forced to marry by her family at the age of 17, a fate faced by millions of teenage girls every year in largely conservative and patriarchal India.
But her fears have largely vanished after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently vowed to increase the legal age of marriage for women.
“I can continue my studies and then decide when to marry and have children," said Madhu.
Guddi, now 20, launched a legal battle to annul her illegal marriage in 2018. She said she was just three years old when her alcoholic father fixed her marriage. After her father’s death and when the time came for Guddi to be sent to live with the family she had been promised to, her mother Dhapu Devi refused, acting to get the marriage annulled.
She may have been saved from a child marriage, but Guddi was stopped from going to school and suffered mental trauma as neighbours badmouthed her for not moving in with her in-laws.
“I don’t want to suffer like my sister,” said Madhu.
Indian marriage laws prescribe a minimum age of 21 years for men and 18 for women but families rampantly flout the rules. About 1.5 million underage girls married in 2017, according to Unicef. A report by the UN group also found that 27 per cent of girls in India were married off before turning 18.
India first codified marriage laws under British rule in 1929 and then again in 1978, raising the legal age for marriage for men from 18 to 21 and from 14 to 18 for women.
Offending parents can be imprisoned for two years for arranging such marriages, with rare convictions recorded in recent years. India’s Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that sex with a minor wife is rape but that such underage marriages, although illegal, do not automatically become void, something that encourages many parents to organise marriages in secret or falsify birth records to bypass the law
But under India’s conservative traditions many parents, particularly in the countryside, still consider their daughters are a financial and safety burden and force them into early marriages to rid themselves of the liability. As a result many of these girls are unable to continue their education and are forced into domestic work and child-bearing before their bodies are full developed.
Yet there has been progress in recent years.
This map shows the number of 20-24 years olds who were married under the age of 18:
This map shows the number of 15-19 year-olds in child marriages - and it is clear there are far fewer than in the older cohort:
Experts say Mr Modi's announcement is part of his government plan to reform India’s health and population policies which still lag behind global standards on many indicators, including child and maternal safety, despite significant improvements in recent years.
“To end malnutrition among girls, to assess what should be the age of marriage, we have set up a committee,” Mr Modi said in his address to the nation on the eve of India’s 74th Independence Day.
"The government is planning to increase the age of women from 18 to 21,” a Ministry of Women and Child Development spokesperson told The National by phone.
“Revisiting the marriageable age of girls in India came into the mind of the Government due to several factors like immaturity, too young to understand for getting married, high infant (particularly female) mortality rate, family and social pressure. There may be other legal factors too. All this when combined could be the reason for doing a rethink on the issue," he added.
The country’s main challenge is to improve its dismal maternal mortality ratio that stands at 113 per 100,000 women and infant mortality ratio of 30 out of 1000 that many experts blame on early and unplanned pregnancies, poverty and lack of information about general and reproductive health.
A government survey in 2016 found that 50.4 per cent of pregnant women were anaemic.
Early marriages are also blamed for lower levels of education among women, financial dependence and lack of overall growth of women in the workforce. Currently only 27 per cent of women are employed in India, a Deloitte report found in 2018.
“It will bring women at par with men, give women an equal opportunity to finish their studies and be empowered,” Kriti Bharti, a rehabilitation psychologist and anti-child marriage activist told The National.
“Parents marry off their young girls because they think she is a burden,” said Ms Bharti, who has helped Guddi and 40 other girls to annul their marriages in the western state of Rajasthan, where child marriages are common.
Ms Bharti said the government needed to ensure that the laws are implemented and awareness is generated about the benefits of later marriage.
Many experts have said that raising the legal age for marriage could help India control its burgeoning population as it will delay births and reduce the childbearing span for women. However, some fear that could also increase cases of elopement and force millions of women out of the formal reproductive healthcare framework because of the stigma attached to pre-marital sex in the Indian society.
The legal age for sex in India is 18 for both men and women .
They fear raising the age bar could also lead to an increase in secret illegal marriages.
“Increasing the legal age is not a solution to ensuring safe motherhood, it is also about ensuring access to information and services on sexual and reproductive health care, contraception and abortion and to make health care affordable,” said Bharti Ali, co-founder and executive director of the Haq Centre for Child Rights.