In June this year, the Ministry of Women and Child Welfare set up a committee to look into, among other issues, the plausibility of increasing the legal age of marriage for women from the present 18 years to 21, so as to bring it at par with men in the country. But experts say the decision to increase the age of marriage will not have the desired effect of gender parity without an associated access to education for girls, especially for girls in the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities.
According to the fourth National Family Health Survey (NHFS 2015-16), early marriage has been declining in the country and 27 per cent women in the age of 20-24 got married before the legal age of 18 years in 2015-16, compared with 47 per cent in 2005-06 (NFHS 3). The median age at first marriage for women age 20-49 also increased to 19 years in 2015-16 from 17.2 years in 2005-06.
The median age at first marriage for women age 25-49 is higher among the social category of Others (19.5 years), OBC (18.5 years), ST (18.4 years) and SC (18.1 years) in 2015-16 (NFHS 4). Similarly, the median age at first marriage for women age 25-49 was higher among the social category of Others (18.1 years), OBC (16.3 years), ST (16.3 years) and SC (15.9 years) in 2005-06 (NFHS 3).
Executive Director of Population Foundation of India, Poonam Muttreja, says that it’s these vulnerable and marginalised communities of women – Adivasis and Dalits and other scheduled castes, which will the government will need to look at first before considering increasing the age of marriage.
“The government needs to look at the last mile first, the disadvantaged women from economically weaker sections and belonging to SC and ST communities. Despite the legal age of marriage having been kept at 18 years, girls from these communities are still being married off under age. And that is because of the social structure – to pass the burden of protection of the girl from her own family to that of the in-laws. The legal age in that sense has not been a deterrent in these communities because the girls do not have access to education after a certain age and they stay at home. If the legal age of marriage is increased to 21 years, then the parents will have the responsibility of keeping the girl home till that age. The social deprivations that these communities face explains the low median. So dramatically increasing the age of marriage will not be a deterrent.” Muttreja adds that it is the women who fall in the SC/ST category are also those who belong to the less educated and BPL families, compounding the problem of early marriages.
The NFHS data shows that urban women marry later than rural women. The median age at first marriage for urban women age 25-49 years is 1.7 years more than rural women (19.8 versus 18.1 years) in 2015-16. This has improved from 18.5 years (urban women) and 16.1 years (rural women) in 2005-06.
The education and income level certainly have a bearing on age at marriage as well. The median age at first marriage for women age 25-49 with 12 or more years of education is 22.7 years against 17.2 years for women with no schooling. Also women in the highest wealth quintile marry much later (20.8 years) than women in lowest wealth quintiles (17.4 years) (NFHS 4).
Asia Director of the International Centre for Research on Women, Dr Ravi Verma says the increasing the age of marriage will simply criminalise marriage for these communities. “It’s the young girls and boys who will suffer. We have been working specifically with the scheduled caste and tribal communities in Jharkhand and have found that in some pockets, girls getting married under the age of 18 years is as high as 60 per cent. There has been a drastic decline in early marriages, it is true – but this is in the category of girls who are 12-14 years. The marriages are now taking place on the cusp of what is legal, so from the ages of 16-18 years. And this is very difficult to determine as the girl’s age is often misrepresented by the family as we still don’t have a robust birth registration system,” says Dr Verma.
In a programme being carried out by the ICRW in Jharkhand, in the two districts of Godda and Jamtara, the ICRW has found that 11 per cent girls between the ages of 15 to 18 years have been married off, and the marriages of another 12 per cent girls in this age group had already been fixed. Both Godda and Jamtara in Jharkhand have high populations of scheduled caste as well as tribal communities – Jamtara has 30.4 per cent scheduled tribes and 9.2 per cent scheduled caste population (2011 census) while Godda has 11.3 per cent scheduled tribe and 8.6 per cent scheduled caste population.
The ICRW has also found that girls who are out of school are 3.4 times more likely to be married or have their marriage already fixed than girls who are still in school.
“So the situation is actually in the reverse. Instead of a law mandating later marriage leading to higher education for women, higher education for women actually ensures later marriages. In our programme we have found that firstly, girls are very aspirational, even in these communities, and do not want to get married early. And that by adding just one year to their education, the girls are able to negotiate the age of marriage with their families by as much as 3-4 years,’’says Dr Verma.
The school dropout precedes marriage for 59 percent of girls in these two districts in Jharkhand. Among married girls, only 16 percent are currently in school, in comparison to 38 percent of those whose marriage is fixed and 57 per cent of those who are neither married nor is their marriage fixed. Among girls who dropped out of school, only nine per cent first got married and then dropped out, while 59 percent dropped out at least a year before getting married.
Executive Director of the Indian Institute for Dalit Studies, Professor Sanghamitra Acharya says that even in these communities the age of marriage has consistently declined. “But the socio-cultural norms, which are changing, will need more time to change. Affirmative action like reservations has had an impact over the last few decades, but the fact is that the number of crimes such as rapes against dalit and Adivasi women are higher than those of other categories. It is a way for higher caste communities to establish dominance. And this is one of the reasons that families get them married early, so that they burden of protecting them is passed to another,” says Professor Acharya adding that the girls not having access to education was also a high motivator for early marriages.
According to the State of the World Report 2020 by UNFPA, in India, 51 per cent of young women with no education and 47 per cent of those with only a primary education had married by age 18. Meanwhile, 29 per cent of young women with a secondary education and 4 per cent with post-secondary education were married before 18.