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'Legislating' Social Change: Strange Case of the Sarda Act

This paper examines whether laws with inadequate penal provisions can still work towards eradicating undesirable social customs. Data on age at marriage from family genealogies in India from 1905 to 1980 is used to examine the effectiveness of the Child Marriage Restraint Act (1929). The findings reveal that though the law lacked adequate penal clauses, it still contributed towards increasing the age at marriage. It worked because a cultural shift towards later marriages was already taking place; the law worked by reinforcing the cultural change. The paper draws attention to the importance of the context in which social legislation operates and the contingent factors that determine its success or failure.
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