During his Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “We have formed a committee to ensure that the daughters are no longer suffering from malnutrition and they are married off at the right age. As soon as the report is submitted, appropriate decisions will be taken about the age of marriage of daughters.”
Reports suggest the minimum age of marriage for girls may be raised from 18 at present to 21.
How prevalent is underage marriage?
Data show that the majority of women in India marry after the age of 21. Chart 1 shows the mean age of women at marriage is 22.1 years, and more than 21 in all states.
This does not mean that child marriages have disappeared. The latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) found that about 26.8% of women aged 20-24 (Chart 2) were married before adulthood (age 18).
How does the age of marriage correlate with health?
Preventing early marriage can reduce the maternal mortality ratio and infant mortality ratio, according to Dipa Sinha, professor of economics at Ambedkar University. At present, the maternal mortality ratio — the number of maternal deaths for every 100,000 children born — is 145. India’s infant mortality ratio shows that 30 of every 1,000 children born in a year die before the age of one. Both these indicators in India are the highest among the BRICS economies (Chart 4).
Young mothers are more susceptible to anaemia, said Shweta Khandelwal, Head of Nutrition Research and Additional Professor at the Public Health Foundation of India.
More than half the women of reproductive age (15-49 years) in India are anaemic. The prevalence of anaemia among women has consistently been high over the last 20 years (Chart 3).
Can a mandated age of marriage bring about a change at population level?
Purnima Menon, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in New Delhi, said poverty, limited access to education and economic prospects, and security concerns are the known reasons for early marriage. “If the main causes of early marriage are not addressed, a law will not be enough to delay marriage among girls,” Menon cautioned.
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What do the data on these show?
Women in the poorest 20% of the population married much younger than their peers from the wealthiest 20% (Chart 5).
The average age at marriage of women with no schooling was 17.6, considerably lower than that for women educated beyond class 12 (Chart 6). Almost 40% of girls aged 15-18 do not attend school, as per a report of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. Nearly 65% of these girls are engaged in non-remunerative work.
That is why many believe that merely tweaking the official age of marriage may discriminate against the poorer, less-educated and marginalised women.
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