New Delhi, Dec 17: The government has decided to raise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years, bringing it at par with that of men.

Experts, however, have raised concern over the decision, saying the move is akin to treating symptoms instead of the underlying causes.

Marriage Rules in India: Government  Raises the Legal Age of Marriage for Women From 18 to 21 years, Say Sources

The Union Cabinet had on Wednesday cleared a proposal to bring in uniformity in the marriageable age of men and women, sources said on Thursday. Minimum Legal Age for Marriage of Women Likely to be Increased to 21 from 18 as Union Cabinet Clears Proposal: Reports.

The government is likely to bring a bill in the ongoing Winter Session of Parliament to amend the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, they said.

The proposed bill may also seek to make consequential changes to various personal laws relating to marriage of different communities to ensure a uniform marriage age, the sources said.

As of now, the legal age of women to get married is 18 while that for men is 21 years.

The decision came a year after Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the government was deliberating on what should be the minimum age for marriage of women.

The decision is based on the recommendation of a four-member task force led by former Samata Party chief Jaya Jaitly.

Speaking about the recommendation, Jaitly said there were two main reasons that were focussed on.

"If we talk about gender equity and gender empowerment in every field, we cannot leave marriage out because this is a very odd message that a girl can be fit to be married at 18 that cuts away her opportunity to go to college, and the man has the opportunity to prepare himself for life and earning up to 21 years,” she told PTI.

"We should give the girl an opportunity to earn and be equal to a man and she cannot become equal at 18 years when man has 21 years to do that. Secondly, we took opinions from lots of people, but the main people who were most attentive were the stakeholders themselves.

“We conducted assessment calls with young people -- universities, colleges and in rural areas -- where they are still at school or getting out of school and the unanimous opinion of the stakeholders was the marriageable age to be 22 or 23 years. Across all religions everyone had the same opinion which was a very heartening thing," she said.

Jaitly said the task force submitted its recommendations to the PMO, Ministry of Women and Child Development and NITI Aayog last December.

The other members in the panel include V K Paul, member (health) NITI Aayog; secretaries of higher education, school education, health, women and child development, legislative department apart from academicians Najma Akhtar, Vasudha Kamat and Dipti Shah.

Amita Pitre, Lead Specialist, Gender Justice, Oxfam India, said the latest NFHS 5 report shows that the number of women marrying early (before 18 years) has reduced from 27 per cent in NFHS 4 to 23 per cent.

"Even so nearly, 50 to 60 per cent of marriages still take place before the age of 21 years. Raising the age of marriage to 21 years will criminalise all such marriages taking place in future. The minimum age of marriage has been 18 years since 1978. Clearly law alone is not successful in raising the age of marriage. In upper and middle classes, girls marry much beyond the age of 21 years and this happened without the compulsion of law," he said.

The official added that the harms of criminalising marriage of girls below 21 years are manifold, which even manifest for those married under 18 years.

Population Foundation of India said increasing women's age of marriage is like "treating symptoms instead of the cause".

"While the concern with early marriage is a step in the right direction, legal action on this issue is akin to treating symptoms instead of the underlying causes which have allowed such a practice to exist for centuries. A whole range of factors such as deep-rooted gender inequality, regressive social norms, financial insecurity, lack of quality education and employment opportunities together contribute to the incidence of early and forced marriages," it said in a statement.

Sheila C Vir, senior nutrition specialist and Director, Public Health Nutrition and Development Centre, New Delhi, said while revisiting the legal age of marriage for girls, it is important to take an anthropological view of the existing diverse practices across geographies.