The government’s proposal to raise the legal age of marriage for women illustrates a timeless principle of governance that rises above all ideologies. When you can’t do the things that desperately need to be done, do something else that you can do easily, even if it does not need doing. At a time when the country is facing its worst overall crisis since Independence, 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.
We know only too well that India is usually near the bottom of the international rankings on gender indicators. India also has the largest absolute number of girls who marry below the age of 18. Therefore, raising the age of marriage to 21 could well be seen as a step towards gender equality that also addresses the health problems of young mothers and their infants. But unfortunately, this reasoning is both unsound and unwise.
The topic of “child marriage” in contemporary India has not received the attention it needs. Public discussion is confined to the occasional coverage in the media where child marriage and trafficking are often carelessly conflated. The periodic National Family Health Surveys (NFHS) provide an internationally-recognised measure of child marriage, namely, the proportion of those in the age group 20-24 years who married before reaching 18 years of age. In the latest survey, NFHS-4 of 2015-16, this proportion is 26.8 per cent, down from 47 per cent in 2005-06. This is a significant decline and the Census shows a similar trend between 2001 to 2011. Along with such impressive declines, NFHS-4 shows that only 6.6 per cent were marrying below the age of 15. In other words, the problem in India today is no longer of child marriage but late adolescent marriage, and a declining one. It might interest readers to know that there are no differences between Hindus and Muslims in these trends.
Opinion | A better world for her
There is an almost global consensus on 18 years as the age of social adulthood. A common threshold for voting rights, driving privileges and much else (with employment and sexual consent at even younger ages), it is also the most common standard for marriage across the world. Scientists have recognised it as the age when the female body reaches full development, such that a healthy woman with adequate ante-natal care can be expected to have a healthy baby. It is already the legal age of marriage in India, so why the hurry to raise it above the international norm?
The best answer would probably go something like this: Raising the age of marriage will raise the age of motherhood, and thus the probability that mother and child will be healthier. It will also lower the fertility rate. But this answer rests on a partial truth that is dangerously misleading. Our health indicators on young mothers and their infants are as bad as they are because poorer (and therefore more malnourished) women are marrying at younger ages compared to their wealthier counterparts. 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. This fact is confirmed by carefully disaggregated statistical analyses.
Moreover, fertility rates in India have been declining sharply. Demographers have been pleasantly surprised by the decline even in states like West Bengal and Telangana, which have high rates of early marriage. Poor families today are having small families. Little is gained by pushing them to have these children three years later.
On the other hand, if the legal age of marriage for women were raised to 21, and the trend shown in NFHS-4 holds, then 56 per cent of Indian women in the 20-24 year age group (who married below 21) would be without legal protections and whose families would be liable for punishment under the new law. This number shoots up to 75 per cent for those in the poorest 20 per cent of the population. Even in a progressive state like Kerala, famous for high levels of education and excellent health services, one-third (of women between 20-24) marry before they are 21. Remember that these numbers are under-estimates since they do not count those women currently in the 18-20 age group who might also marry before 21. How will it help to render such women without legal recourse by going beyond the international norm of 18 years?
There is so much else that must be tackled first. 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. With few avenues of gainful employment for young women, a home-bound school drop-out becomes a source of anxiety, and marriage the only viable prospect. Well-intentioned conditional cash transfer schemes by state governments rewarding families who obey the law are popularly known as “dahej” (dowry) schemes. Instead of tackling gender inequality, they reinforce the belief that girls are a burden relieved only by marriage. To bring genuine change, we need free education beyond schooling for girls, coupled with job guarantees, especially for those from rural areas and vulnerable social locations. This would make it genuinely possible for girls to have some say as to whether, how or when they wished to marry.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 31, 2020 under the title ‘Taking the easy way out’. John is a researcher at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies and author of the upcoming Child Marriage in an International Frame.