It was the first social reform issue which was taken up by the organized women in India. They played a major role in the development of argument and actively used the device of political petition and in the process contributed in the field of politics.
The various organized women associations got the opportunity of playing independent political role when the cautious British India government, under the pressure of the world opinion, the social reformist in India and Nationalist freedom fighters, referred the Sharda's Bill (Hindu Child Marriage Bill) to a select committee of ten headed by Sir Moropant Visavanath Joshi. The All India Women's Conference, Women's India Association and National Council of Women in India, through their members developed and articulated the argument in favour of raising of the age for marriage and consent before the Joshi Committee.
Even the Muslim women represented to the Joshi Committee. The Muslim women presented their views in favour of raising the age limit of marriage even when they knew that they would face opposition from Muslim Ulemas. Pro-reform politicians, such as Motilal Nehru, were caught off guard when the organized women's association met with leaders to ask for their support in the bill. The all-India women's association pressured politicians for their support in the bill, standing outside their delegations holding placards and shouting slogans such as 'if you oppose Sarda's bill, the world will laugh at you'.
It was also this group who pushed for, and eventually succeeded in having Gandhi address the evils of child marriage in his speeches. Victory for the bill can be credited to the women's association, who presented the act as a means for India to demonstrate it's commitment to modernity. Women in India were now challenging the double standards set in place by ancient shastras. Declaring they would begin to make their own laws, free of male influence, the women's organization brought liberal feminism to a forefront.
Although this is a victory for the women's movement in India, the act itself was a complete failure. In the two years and five months it was an active bill, there were 473 prosecutions, of which only 167 were successful. The list goes on with 207 acquittals, with 98 cases still pending during August 1932. Out of the 167 successful prosecutions, only 17 or so did either all of or part of their sentence. The majority of cases were in Punjab and the United Provinces.
A 1931 census was available to the public during the summer of 1933 in order to give a status report of how the bill was doing: the number of wives under fifteen had increased from 8.5 million to 12 million, but the number of husbands under the age of fifteen had gone from 3 to more than 5 million. The number of wives under the age of five had quadrupled (originally the numbers were about 218,500, which then shot up to 802,200). The percentage of widowed children had decreased from about 400,000 to about 320,000. Though these numbers are startling, during the six months between when it was passed and when it became an active bill, it's suggested that only about three million girls and two million boys were forced into a child marriage; the largest percent of these marriages were between Muslim children. The bill's census report, however, shows that the law reached and affected the masses, even if the numbers are very slight.
However, the Act remained a dead letter during the colonial period of British rule in India.
Read more about this topic: Child Marriage Restraint Act
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