Despite child marriage being illegal, 31 per cent married women in India give birth while they are still minors and their babies are 10 per cent more likely to be malnourished than those born to adults, a new study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has found.
The study — the first to comprehensively examine links between teenage pregnancy and child undernutrition in India — highlights how child marriage is adding to India’s malnutrition burden.
India is home to more stunted children than any other country and is among the top 10 countries facing the burden of teenage pregnancy.
Data from the National Family Health Survey-4 (NHFS-4) shows that 38.4 per cent babies in India are stunted. The country has an annual birth cohort of about 26 million babies.
NHFS data also shows that among the marriages in the country, 27 per cent are those of underage girls. “Reducing adolescent pregnancy in India can hasten our progress towards achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, particularly those related to poverty, health, nutrition, general well-being, equity, and education,” said IFPRI Research Fellow and the study’s co-author, Phong Hong Nguyen.
The study shines the spotlight on the social challenges faced by schemes such as the Centre’s Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, the Delhi government’s Ladli and the West Bengal government’s Kanyashree.
Conditional cash transfer schemes that are aimed at encouraging education for girls and preventing underage marriage and infanticide are just beginning to show results in districts with the worst sex ratios.
The study, ‘Social, biological and programmatic factors link adolescent pregnancy to early childhood undernutrition: a path analysis of India’s 2016 National Family Health Survey’, has been published in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health. The authors analysed data from 60,097 mother-child pairs and examined the extent to which teenage pregnancy is associated with child undernutrition. They also explored the potential social, biological, and programmatic factors links between the two.
The study found that stunting and underweight prevalence was 10 percentage points higher in children born to adolescent mothers. “Our study sheds empirical light on pathways between teenage pregnancies and child undernutrition. People have talked about these pathways before, but this data allowed us to put some numbers to those pathways,” explains study co-author Samuel Scott.
“The strongest links between adolescent pregnancy and child stunting were through the mother’s education, her socio-economic status, and her weight,” said Scott.
Compared to adult mothers, teenagers were shorter, more likely to be underweight and anaemic and less likely to have access to health services. They also had poorer complementary feeding practices, lower education, lesser bargaining power and lived in poorer households with poorer sanitation, it said.
The authors identified prevention of early marriage as a necessity to bring down the malnutrition burden. “Unfortunately, in India, early marriage and subsequent pregnancy is often not a deliberate choice, but rather the result of an absence of choices,” said IFPRI Senior Research Fellow and study co-author, Purnima Menon.