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Legal Marriageable Age for Girls in India: 18 or 21?

My answer to: Should the legal marriageable age for girls in India be changed from 18 to 21? (To vote and comment on Quora, visit the link here.)


This debate often drowns into nonsense, because we start discussing in a manner as if the legal limit makes it mandatory for girls to marry at 18. No one is compulsorily asking you to marry a girl at 18. Eighteen is just the legal minimum limit for marriage. As much as it is a very young age to get married, it is also to be noted that it is just a legal minimum. You are free to choose your age of marriage at any age above 18. Please remember that while you read this answer.

The purpose of setting a legal minimum limit is not to advise you on when to marry, but to set an age BELOW which it’s criminal to marry. Do you think marrying at 19 should be CRIMINAL? It would better be unadvisable, but criminal? This is the point where the legal minimum limit is misunderstood and is often villainized by otherwise progressive-minded debaters.

If the law were to be changed and the legal marriageable age were to be brought up to 21 for girls too, let’s find out who are the interested parties:

  • In much of conservative India, the girl child is still not being given that much importance. The aim is still to marry the girl off, an event the parents are looking forward to with a high sense of urgency and hurry, and much of their life has revolved around getting done with that event. These girls are an interested party to such a change in law.
  • There are girls in urban, progressive India who are not ready to get married and find 18 and even 21 a very young age for marriage. So, they are ignoring this legal minimum limit anyway—it doesn’t matter to them whether this minimum age be 18 or 21; they will most likely marry only after at least 23 or 24, because they are independent and have their own ambitions. They are not an interested party to such a change in law.
  • Then, there are girls in urban, progressive India who are on their path to ambition but are being forced to marry by their family once they reach 18. They are an interested party to such a change in law, because it breaks their journey.

So, there are only two interested parties here:

  • girls in conservative India (forming a large part of the population) for whose parents marriage is an urgent issue to get done with.
  • girls who would not have liked to get married at 18, are educated and ambitious, but are being forced to marry at 18.

How does the change of legal limit from 18 to 21 impacts them:

  • For the girls of the first kind, there’s a very high chance they have been educated very nominally, and their life awaits marriage as the sole closest aim. They have been brought up that way by their parents with regressive mindsets. If you know India, you know that such situations are widely prevalent in rural India. They may have developed some respect for the girl child with changing times, but marriage remains the sole aim. If the legal limit is made 21, these girls become a liability to the family for a further 3  years, and it’s likely that they will be subjected to more disrespect and torture. Why? Because the law is helping such a girl waste 3 years for a father who is otherwise waiting to get her married and take a sigh of relief. Such a girl may attempt to prove herself employable and an asset, but such attempts are likely to be met with distaste and will be unwelcome. It is better to marry this girl at 18, when she reaches adulthood, and quickly go into the situation the rest of her life is destined to be spent in, instead of leading a life that is constantly told to her is temporary. Because, even if she is married off at 25, there is no guarantee that the marriage will be of her choice.
  • For the girls of the second kind, I think the issue is not of legal limit. Because even if the age is moved to 21, they are still likely to be forced to marry to a groom not of her choice, and her ambitions and choices will always be looked at unpleasantly. Bad things will always happen in our society, and forced marriage is the issue here, not the legal minimum age. The legal limit is based on psychological and social information, and is more of less uniform throughout the world. If the girl tries to stamp her ambitions and goes ahead with them, no one can stop her, and no one can forcibly marry her off.

I think forced marriage is a bigger crime to be discussed. Eighteen is psychologically the “just-enough” age for marriage, because a person at this age is expected to have attained basic levels of employability to sustain a family (familial aspect of marriage), puberty (sexual component of marriage), and social and emotional skills to sustain a marriage. It would be great if the minimum were something like 20, and the same for the boy and the girl, but for a country like India, it makes sense to have it as 18 and 21 (18 for girls because of reasons mentioned above, and 21 for boys because of the societal set-up).

Most of us feel we are too young even at 21 to get married only because we have been conditioned to feel so, and our path in life has been designed by our parents that way since birth. It doesn’t necessarily make 18 or 21 unsuitable ages for marriage. By setting the legal limit to 18, the law does not force us to marry at 18, it just suggests that you should not marry before 18.

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