WHAT IS THE SARDA ACT? WILL THE MARRIAGEABLE AGE OF WOMEN TO BE INCREASED TO 21?
Published by: Tanusmita Debnath
Marriage is a sacred union between two mature individuals who are in consensus with each other to share responsibilities and take care of each other for a lifetime. However, women marrying before the age of 18 experience reproductive health morbidities and maternal mortality. Recently, the Government of India is planning to revise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years. The author discusses the history of the Sharda Act, its purpose and the committee established to revise the legal age of marriage for women.
Child marriage was predominant in Indian society as a result the girl children were in pathetic circumstances. During 1928-1929, The Sharda Bill was introduced by Rao Sahib Haribilas Sarda in the Legislative Assembly of the Government of India to prevent the prevalent child marriage in India. On September 28, 1929, the Sharada Act additionally known as The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 was passed in the Imperial Legislative Council of India during the viceroyalty of Lord Irwin. The Act was named after Harbilas Sarda who was a Judge and a member of the Arya Samaj. The Hindu reformists and particularly the emerging women's organizations such as the All India Women’s Conference, Women’s Indian Association, and National Council of Women fought for the implementation of this Act, because it illustrated that Indians were deeply concerned with and anxious to change certain social practices. The Sharda Act came into force on 1st April 1930. This Act provided restriction of marriage for girls below 14 years of age and for boys below 18 years of age. It extends to the whole of India and except for the State of Jammu and Kashmir and it additionally applies to all citizens of India irrespective of their caste or creed. In 1978, the Sharda Act of 1929 was amended to revise the marriageable age of a woman from 14 to 18 years and men from 18 to 21 years. Child marriage has seen a significant decrease of 54 percent in 1992-93.
The health of a girl is directly impacted by marrying young, child marriages are frequently accompanied by early and unwanted pregnancies and childbirth that results in more than average maternal morbidity and mortality rates. The Sarda Act of 1929 secured the minimum marriageable age for girls at 14 years and boys at 18 years respectively. Child marriage is described as a marriage in which either of the contracting parties is a child. The Sarda Act pertains to both the boys and girls since child marriages have a direct bearing on the physical and mental health of both boys and girls. The main purpose of this Act is to restrain the solemnization of child marriages in India and it applies to all classes of people throughout British India. This Act forbids the marriage of Boys below 18 years and girls below 14 years of age. Section 3 of the Sarda Act, 1929 states that whoever, being a male above 18 years of age and below 21years, contracts a child marriage shall be punished with a simple imprisonment, which might extend to 15 days, or with a fine of INR 1,000, or both. Section 5 of the 1929 Act, insists that the persons engaged or parents/guardians contracts a child marriage shall be punished with simple imprisonment, which might extend to 3 months, or with fine of INR 1,000 or both. However, the injunction to child marriage is only an optional injunction as Section 12 of the Sarda Act rules that a court might issue an injunction.
Problems with implementation of Act in pre-independent India:
There is an elongated history behind child marriage in India. The custom of child marriage began in medieval India because of the authoritarian rulers. However, the weight of motherhood at an immature age shatters the health of women. An effort was made in the year of 1929 to restraint child marriages through the enactment of the Sarda Act of 1929. This Act was approved with the purpose of restraining the solemnization of child marriage. However, it remained a lifeless letter. Numerous interrogations were raised on the legitimacy of a British act in the colonized India. It was a complicated process not an effortless change in the legislation that involves such a convoluted issue of reforming an old tradition such as child marriage. Even before significantly considering the evils of the child marriage many people disregarded the 1929 Act as a foreign act in Indian soil. People adversarial it as an interference in their personal religious beliefs and customs. It was obeyed in its breach more than in its observance. The Sharda Act could not reach the population in the villages for lack of publicity. Another problem with its implementation was that there was no adequate machinery to successfully enforce it. The Act was complicated by the fact that a complaint had to be lodged against the offending parties before they could be punished.
The only way of punishing the party was by imposing fine. The fine was considered as an extra expenditure on marriage by the contracting party and thus the fine was paid. The Sharda Act of 1929 prescribed 14 as the minimum age for girls, and 18 for boys, but the impression of the social reality and notions was that the child marriages were made neither void nor voidable, but once the marriage is performed it was flawlessly valid. The attempts to stop child marriages led to violent conflict and open hostility in several States. In the 1930s, the communal Hindu and Muslim groups were the only parties in India that continued to support the British rule. The British government did not wish to lose the support of these groups.
Hence, they completely avoided proper implementation of this Act and similar social reforms instead focused their attention to prevent the Indian freedom movement. Two years after the enactment of the Sharda Act of 1929, the high rate of child marriages being performed was revealed in the census of 1941. The act was again amended in the year 1940 to revise the marriageable ages of both women and men. Thus, the major problems with the successful implementation of the Sharda Act of 1929 in pre-independent India include poverty, insecurity, patriarchy and gender inequalities, lack of education, political reasons as well as the inadequate implementation of the law.
Committee to be established to give recommendations:
The age of marriage is an important element to improve issues concerning maternal and child health, growth in the levels of nutrition, etc. Women marrying before 18 years’ experience undesirable pregnancies, Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD), prone to sexual and reproductive health morbidities, and maternal mortality. Thus, the Government of India is planning to increase the legal marriageable age of women from 18 years to 21 years. In February 2020, the Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, declared to establish a task force that would present its recommendations regarding the amendment of the marriageable age of women in a time period of 6 months. The former Samata Party President, Jaya Jaitly, heads the 10-member task force. VK Paul who is a member of NITI Ayog, Secretaries Health, Women and Child Development, Law and School Education are the members of the committee. Najma Akhtar (New Delhi), Vasudha Kamath (Maharashtra), and Dipti Shah (Gujarat) are the independent members of the task force. This high-level committee established by the Central Government would submit its recommendations of this matter by July 31, 2020. The task force would observe matters related to motherhood and marriage at an early age.
The main reason behind this amendment is to encourage higher education among women, the mental health of the mother, significance of nutrition to both the child and mother, explore the effect of marital age on the infant and maternal mortality rate as well as the sex ratio at birth and child sex ratio. India is a diverse country with layered society and diverse convictions. The major trial in front of the government would be the successful implementation of this modification, particularly in the rural areas where sexism is still an epidemic crisis. Communities, specifically the oppressed one’s fears that the daughter should be espoused off even before they reach the age of puberty. This also would have to be dealt with by creating more awareness by implementing stricter measures. According to UNICEF, around 27% of women in India are married before the age of 18. If the legal marriageable age of women is revised by the Central government from 18 years to 21 years, then the stricter laws have to be reinforced to prevent the marriage at an early age.
Child marriage is a subject of huge concern and it must be tackled with seriousness. Marriage at a tender age results in a number of health problems to women. Parents must educate their girl child so that she can progress in her life and support her family whenever required. There should be a mass level awareness campaigns to solve this problem. Although the 1929 Act was an inefficient Act but it was the first act to fix a minimum age of marriage in India and by the virtue of that it created an awareness about the problem of Child Marriage.
 INDIA TODAY, (July 23,2018), Child marriage is a bane in India: A glance at several shocking facts. Retrieved on July 30 2020 from https://www.indiatoday.in/education-today/gk-current-affairs/story/child-marriage-india-1293581-2018-07-23.  Juhi Srivastava, “Increasing Women’s Legal Age For Marriage To 21 Years Is The Need Of The Hour” Youth Ki Awaaz, July 26, 2020.  RACOLB LEGAL, (November 22, 2016), AN ANALYSIS OF CHILD MARRIAGE RESTRAINT ACT AND THE IDEOLOGY AND HISTORY BEHIND ITS FORMATION. Retrieved on August 1, 2020 from http://racolblegal.com/an-analysis-of-child-marriage-restraint-act-and-the-ideology-and-history-behind-its-formation/.  Arfa Javaid, “Government to revise the legal age of marriage for women: All you need to know” Jagran Josh, June 19, 2020.  Maitri Porecha, “Taskforce to recommend raising woman’s marriageable age” The Hindu Business Line, February 1, 2020.