Madhya Pradesh: How will “tracking’ women and raising marriageable age to 21 keep women safe? 

The state government’s scheme of tracking women for their safety and increasing the marriageable age to 21 takes state surveillance to new levels, and overlooks structural inequalities that women continue to face


The Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has suggested that working women who move out of their homes will have to register themselves at the nearest local police station so that they can be “tracked” for their own safety.

Besides perpetuating the culture of stalking, and taking state surveillance to new heights, this amounts to a disastrous infiltration into a woman’s privacy. Imagine going to the Police Station and providing unknown men and women your personal details- name, phone number, house address, place of work, etc for your own “safety”.

Instead of striving to make spaces, both inside and outside safer for women, the Government continues to place the onus of women’s safety on women and establish systems in place that will further restrict women movement and expose them to actual tracking. What about women who refuse to register at these local stations, will they be blamed for their own potential abuse or harassment by men in the future?

This mechanism which is yet to come into effect with no clarity on whether it is mandatory for all women to register their movement with the authorities, in order to prevent being preyed upon by men comes at the cost of their own personal liberty. Security of any woman that is achieved by curtailing their freedom is no security.

This initiative also raises privacy concerns. What the Head of the State seemed to have forgotten is the Right to Privacy that is enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. Privacy is not only a constitutional core of human dignity and interests but also connotes the right to be left alone.

A woman, by merely occupying public space does not forfeit her right to privacy to have men in uniform stalk and track her. The top court in Puttaswamy has also similarly held that privacy is not lost or surrendered merely because the individual is in a public place. And to what extend will women be followed to places, will there also be a system in place where policemen prevent women from entering a bar or a café post office? This essentially is moral policing sanctioned by the state.

The fashion of Moral Policing is not an alien concept to India that has seen the emergence of “special cells” and “anti-Romeo squads” since the 1990’s across the country to ostensibly protect the “honour” of women. These groups have taken to the echelons of the Police patrolling public spaces, increasing vigilance, harassing couples and in some instances even forcing them to exchange garlands if they are seen together in outdoor places.  

The overzealous cops who conducted raids in Madh Island, Mumbai in 2015 knocking on hotel room doors and carting adults away to police stations for alleged “prostitution like activities” breaching their privacy, or the “Operation Majnu” carried out by Meerut Police thrashing young couples sitting in local parks back in 2005 and the Delhi Police that slapped a case of obscenity against a married couple for kissing (that was later directed to be dropped by the court) are just few of the many dubious instances that exhibits Police juggernaut.

Since the Indian Police only has a meagre 8% women officers, it is safe to assume that policemen will be inevitably involved in setting up and implementing this scheme exposing Madhya Pradesh women to more police encounters. Policemen anyway have a glorious track record of failing to register FIR’s in sexual abuse cases. In October, 2020 a Madhya Pradesh Police officer refused to register a Dalit rape victim’s complaint for four days, following which she ended her life. Within hours of the Dalit girl’s death in September, the Hathras Police of Uttar Pradesh hurriedly cremated her body citing law and order situation. Should this executive branch be entrusted with women’s safety?

The nation certainly needs to see an end to such bizarre propositions that raises more questions than it provides answers. What next if this tracking system fails?  Are women going to be installed with chips in their body that can be accessed by the Government in their surveillance rooms?

The Chief Minister also suggested that the age of marriage for women be increased from 18 to 21. The Prime Minister too emphasised on the same during his Independence Day Speech in 2020. A committee and a task force were formed in the same regard to consider the situation and the 10-member task force was notified on June 4, 2020 which is headed by Jaya Jaitley and NITI Aayog member Vinod Paul.

In response to this, a report was published by Young Voices: National Working Group in July 2020 after reaching out to young people from socially, economically and politically vulnerable backgrounds between the age of 12 to 22. The report examines the correlation between age of marriage and motherhood with key health, medical, nutritional status as well as higher education of girls and young women.

The report that surveyed about 2,500 adolescents across several regions’ states, “increasing the age of marriage will either harm; or have no impact by itself unless the root causes of women’s disempowerment are addressed.” 

What our law makers fail to take cognisance of is the root cause behind early marriages. A higher percentage of rural women get married earlier as compared to their urban counterparts for several reasons like self-exclusion from the family’s economic burdens, prohibitive cost of education, mounting household chores, etc.  

There is no substantial proof that a raise in the age of marriage could be beneficial and instead the focus should be on removing the root causes of discrimination against young girls and women, that will not only prevent child and early marriage but improve their health outcomes. The infrastructures must be constructed in a way that’s both accessible and dwindles structural inequalities.

In fact, the National Family Health Survey’s (NFHS-4) findings said that girls from poor families mostly dropout at the secondary level because of lack of interest in studies (24.8%), and only 7.9% for marriage. The Young Voices report documents one such young girl from Jharkhand who said, “If a girl has voting rights at 18 years then why can’t she get married at 18 years if she wants to? Why increase the age to 21 years?

A young girl surveyed from Karnataka added, “Child marriages will increase if an amendment (increase the age to 21) is made to the law without bringing about a change in the reality. Amending the law is not the same as changing our realities, realities are very different from one family to the other. All girls should have equal access to education and this will ensure the reduction in child marriages. Girls do not have access to the opportunities that boys enjoy.”

Child Marriage is an established reality in India, albeit a law enacted for the purpose to prevent it (Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006), is in place that sets the minimum marriage age for girls at 18 and 21 for boys. UNICEF estimates suggest that each year, at least 1.5 million girls under the age of 18 are married in India, which makes the country home to the largest number of child brides in the world. So, increasing the age for women will only exacerbate accessibility to proper reproductive healthcare, especially the marginalised sections.

The idea that appears to be a progressive step may have little or no value attached to it and instead the Government should focus on extending the right to education to all groups of women. Education and marriage are inversely proportional to each other as an increased investment in the former, decreases the frequency of the latter. 

In September 2018, the National Human Rights Commission also showed how higher education levels lead to a lower likelihood of women being married early and strongly recommended that the Right to Education Act, 2009, be amended to make it applicable up to the age of 18 years. Presently, children in the age group of 14-18 are outside the purview of act and most vulnerable to drop out.

Mentality and infrastructural changes are the need of the hour, in addition to stringent action against those who refuse to comprehend the problem at hand. For precedent sake, the Madhya Pradesh Congress leader Sajjan Singh Verma must be nationally called out for his pontificating remark over not increasing the marriageable age to 21 as girls are ready to reproduce at the age of 15. The National Commission for Women member Chandramukhi Devi who said that the gangrape and murder of the 50-year-old Anganwadi worker may have been avoided if she did not venture out in the evening, should have been suspended a week ago after revealing brazen insensitivity. 

It is more than time that we stopped accepting that if you live in India you have to normalise casual cruelty and invisibilise medieval brutality. Worse that we need state surveillance to keep us safe!


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