Editorial Notes

[Editorial Notes] Issues around Early marriage of Women

A well-educated woman’s chances of making informed decisions and exercising greater agency in the household are monumental in breaking the cycle of poverty, ill-health, as well as malnutrition.
By IASToppers
August 04, 2020

Contents:

  • Introduction
  • Positive Trends
  • Concerns
  • Reasons
  • Link between level of education and early marriage
  • Socio-cultural determinants of early marriage
  • Way Forward
  • Conclusion

Issues around Early marriage of Women

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Introduction:

According to the 1978 amendment of the Child Marriage Restraint Act, and Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, the minimum age of marriage is 18 years for girls and 21 years for boys. The government has set up a special task force to advise it on the issue of raising the age of marriage for girls from 18 to 21 years. The reasoning is that raising the age of marriage will raise the age of motherhood, lower fertility rate and mother and child will be healthier.

Positive Trends:

  • As per the latest Sample Registration System (SRS) bulletin 2019, India’s Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR) stands at 122.
  • It is a significant decline from an MMR of 556 in 1990.
  • There is a decrease in the prevalence of child marriage from 58 % in 1970-80 to 21 % by 2015-16.
  • However, there is a wide variation amongst states — highest in West Bengal at 39 % followed by Bihar and Jharkhand.
  • The 2015-16 National Family Health Survey (NFHS 4) confirms the urban-rural difference in the incidence of early marriage — 17.5 % in urban and 31.5 % in rural women.

Concerns:

  • Despite these positive developments, intrauterine growth restriction and poor birth outcome for gestational age and low birth weight (LBW) remain a grave concern.
  • Three out of 10 children being LBW and a neonatal mortality rate of 23/1000 live births.
  • Early marriage and early pregnancy play a central role in this grim scenario.
  • Prevalence of malnutrition among children born to adolescent mothers is 11 per cent higher than among the others.

Reasons:

1. Poverty & no assured employment:

  • Numerous studies show that parents are investing in their daughters’ education (with near gender parity even in higher education), but our education system is failing the young.
  • There are a few avenues of gainful employment for young women.
  • Thus a home-bound school drop-out becomes a source of anxiety, and marriage the only viable prospect.

2. Poor Health of mother:

  • NFHS-4 shows that only 6.6 % were marrying below the age of 15.
  • Hence, the problem in India today is no longer of child marriage but late adolescent marriage.
  • Adolescence (10-19 years) is the last window of opportunity for attaining optimum height.
  • Entering pregnancy at this stage hinders attaining optimum height and prevents full growth of reproductive organs.
  • Poor maternal height (<145 cm) is reported to be one of the highest risk factors associated with obstructed labour, mortality and chronic child undernutrition.

Link between level of education and early marriage:

  • The relationship between the level of education and early marriage is well established.
  • With no education, 44.7 % ofwomen are married before 18 years.
  • This drops to 39.7 % with primary education, 23.2 % with secondary education and 2.9 % with higher education.
  • With higher levels of education, women are also empowered to take decisions within the family.
  • They are better equipped to inculcate safe sex, family planning and safe abortion practices.

Socio-cultural determinants of early marriage:

  • In some tribal northern regions such as Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, a young girl is sent off by her parents without a formal wedding, for cohabitation referred to as Pethu, Udhalka vivah, etc.
  • The marriage is formalised whenever the girl’s parents have adequate resources to hold a community feast, often after a young girl has already borne children.
  • Similarly, in certain semi-urban and rural areas of UP, Bihar and interiors of Rajasthan, the practice of Gauna is common.
  • As per this custom, a girl child is married at a young age, but the girl continues to live in her natal home, only to consummate the marriage once puberty is attained.
  • In such situations, the community will find it difficult to adhere to the legal age unless an opportunity is provided and incentives built-in for a girl to have access to completing secondary school education.
  • Such incentives or cash transfer education schemes are in operation in various states.

Way Forward:

  • The Task Force responsible for reviewing the age of marriage should recognise the diversities that may hamper its implementation.
  • Along with increasing the age of marriage, efforts need to be directed to delay the age of conception.
  • Schemes such as universal registration of marriage could be vital in providing newly married couples with timely information on family planning and family care.
  • If the registration is linked with Aadhaar, it can facilitate support to women to enter pregnancy well-nourished and at the right time.
  • Ensuring delayed marriage and pregnancy depends not just on the legal age but requires concerted efforts to keep girls in school for longer, as well as enabling them to complete higher education or vocational training.

Conclusion:

A well-educated woman’s chances of gainful employment, making informed decisions and exercising greater agency in the household is unparalleled. It is monumental in breaking the cycle of poverty, early marriage and ill health, as well as the inter-generational cycle of malnutrition.

But if poor women continue to remain poor and malnourished, raising their age of marriage by a few years will change very little. Much of the same problems will recur when they marry at 21 years. To bring genuine change, we need to prioritise education beyond schooling for girls, coupled with job guarantees, especially for those from rural areas and vulnerable social locations.

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