At a parliament meeting on June 15, Nepal’s Law and Justice Minister Govinda Bandi announced that the government is preparing to lower the legal age of marriage.
“One gets citizenship at 16 and voting rights at 18,” Bandi pointed out. Consequently, allowing people to get married only when they turn 20 doesn’t make sense. Bandi also claimed that the current legal age of marriage “has increased crimes.” Those who get married earlier “are being punished for child marriage,” he said.
If either or both partners are below 20 years, then that marriage is not recognized as legal in Nepal. Currently, Nepal’s marriageable age is among the highest in the world.
Several legislators have called for a revision of the Civil Code, 2017, which sets the marriageable age at 20. Those in favor of lowering the marriageable age have put forth various arguments.
First, several communities in Nepal marry early. When they follow their traditions they end up facing serious consequences. Some grooms, and even family members, have been sent to jail on rape charges for marrying underage brides. There have been cases of Nepali men crossing the border to India to find a bride. The legal age of marriage in India is 18.
The existing law on legal age of marriage has disproportionately affected marginalized communities. The Tharus, for instance, had a tradition whereby marriage was decided even before the birth in some cases. It is, therefore, not a surprise that the calls for lowering the marriageable age have come from lawmakers from the Southern plains of Nepal where child marriage is practiced more and the socially accepted norm.
Second, the voting age and age of consent in Nepal is 18 years, indicating that people are considered adults and capable of making their own decisions for all practical purposes when they turn 18. Why then is a person allowed to marry only after they turn 20? 18 years seems to be the global standard as well.
Third, some argue that the higher minimum marriageable age has led to an increase in crimes. Rape and sexual harassment cases are rising in Nepal. Nepal Police reported that rape cases increased by 18 percent in 2021. Though the correlation does not mean causation, many hold onto this narrative. Also, 48 percent of women aged 20-49 had reported having sexual intercourse by age 18.
However, the marriageable age was set high for a reason.
Nepal has one of the highest rates of child marriage in Asia. The National Demographic Health Survey, 2016, found that the average age of marriage is 17.9 years for women and 21.7 years for men. Among women aged 25-49, more than half (52 percent) married by 20, and 13 percent married by 15. Nepal has committed to ending the practice by 2030, per the sustainable development goals.
Marriage and child-bearing have decisive impact on the quality of life, especially of a mother. Therefore, the minimum age was set deliberately higher. It protects children from abuse, violence and sexual exploitation because child brides experience domestic violence at a higher rate. It has also lowered drop-out rates among female children. The higher minimum age was to narrow the gender development gap.
Strict laws ensured that young people, especially girls, could finish school, become independent, and make informed marriage choices. This gives agency to the women. This is critical in Nepal’s context where parents sometimes arrange marriages overriding children’s wishes.
In this context, the lowering of the minimum marriage age could undo some progress. Yet, a higher marriageable age does not mean women’s empowerment or minor’s protection, by default. Higher threshold would mean that girls will have no say in their personal matters till the age. A 10-year research in India found that child marriage law was overwhelmingly used by parents against eloping daughters, and had “become a tool for parental control.”
In this context, the marriageable age should balance the protection of child and respect their autonomy. While there is no “magic” number at which such a balance can be achieved, the global norm is around 18 years. Hence, lowering the marriageable age to 18 years would be sensible, and be in harmony with the age of consent.
However, the implementation of existing laws protecting the rights of minors has to be improved significantly in tandem with efforts to raise awareness about the impacts of child marriage. Without such a guarantee, minors, especially girls, will be at the mercy of a patriarchal society.