The Uttarakhand government will soon convene a special session of the state Assembly to discuss and pass the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) Bill based on the recommendations of the UCC committee, which is now set to submit its report to the government.
It is learnt that in its report the expert committee, led by former Supreme Court judge Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai, has placed emphasis on gender equality and equal rights for daughters in ancestral properties. But it does not suggest raising the marriageable age of women to 21, retaining it at 18 years.
During his Independence Day address in 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his government would “reconsider and determine the right age of marriage for women in India”.
Based on the recommendations submitted to Niti Aayog in December 2020 by the Centre’s task force, headed by Jaya Jaitly, Union Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani introduced The Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill in the Lok Sabha in December 2021, seeking to raise the minimum legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years.
The ruling BJP argued that the Bill was key to gender equity and justice – and also secular.
Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had then told The Indian Express: “Women’s age of marriage was increased from 15 years to 18 years in 1978, by amending the erstwhile Sharda Act of 1929. As India progresses further, opportunities open up for women to pursue higher education and careers. There are imperatives of lowering MMR (Maternal Mortality Ratio) as well as improvement of nutrition levels. Entire issue about the age of a girl entering motherhood needs to be seen in this light.”
Introducing the Bill in the House, Irani said: “I would like to present that women equality in our country needs to be seen in (terms of) age of marriage. Invoking different marriage laws of different faiths, I rise to introduce the amendment Bill.”
Opposing the Bill for being “brought in haste”, the Congress and other Opposition parties demanded that it should be sent to a Standing Committee. The Opposition members also charged that it was a violation of fundamental rights and would impact personal laws.
Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said: “We want to suggest to the government that if you do anything in haste, you are likely to commit mistakes. Across India, this issue has generated a lot of debate. And this government has neither consulted states nor spoken to stakeholders… We demand that this Bill be referred to the Standing Committee right away.”
AIMIM MP Asaduddin Owaisi said the Bill was in violation of fundamental rights under Article 19 of the Constitution. “This is a retrogressive amendment. This is against the right to freedom under Article 19. An 18-year old can choose a Prime Minister, can have a live-in relationship, can have sexual relation under POCSO Act, but the Government is denying them the right to marriage. What have you done for the 18-year old? The women’s labour force participation in India is lower than Somalia. Sir, 89 per cent of the fund for ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ was used for other multifarious publicity.”
ET Mohammed Basheer of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) said the Bill was “unconstitutional” and was violative of Article 25. “This is an attack on personal law and fundamental rights in this country,” he said.
The NCP’s Supriya Sule said the government was “aggressively bringing in Bills” and nobody from the Opposition was being consulted. Echoing a similar view, DMK MP Kanimozhi said consultations with various stakeholders must be held.
Replying to the criticism, Irani said, “We are 75 years late in providing equal rights to men and women to enter into matrimony. In the 19th century, the marriageable age for women was 10 years. By 1940, it was increased to 12-14 years. In 1978, women who reached the age of 15 were married. For the first time, through this Bill, men and women, keeping in mind the right to equality, can decide on their marriage.”
She took exception to suggestions that uneducated women would not be able to understand or exercise their rights, saying it was “an insult to rural women”.
The Bill was sent to the Standing Committee on Education, Women, Children, Youth and Sports for examination. In October this year, it was granted a fresh three-month extension to table its report.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court junked a PIL filed by advocate and BJP spokesperson Ashwini Upadhyay seeking uniform age of marriage for men and women at 21. A Bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) D Y Chandrachud said it was a matter for Parliament to decide.
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