The way to end child marriage

News: Recently, the government has increased the age of marriage of women in India from 18 to 21 years, as a delayed marriage might offer significant public health dividends and substantive benefits at the individual and societal levels.

Benefit of increasing age of marriage

There is a significant association between early marriage and adverse health and educational outcomes of women and their children.

Early marriage of women leads to early pregnancy. Further, it leads to lower likelihood of accessing ante-natal care, higher risks of maternal morbidity and mortality, poor nutritional status of women and poor nutritional outcome. In addition, it leads to poor educational outcomes of children.

Is increasing the legal age of marriage enough?

As per NFHS-5 data, about 25% of women aged 18-29 years married before the legal marriageable age of 18. It means that the legally mandated age of 18 has not been complied.

State-wise pattern

West Bengal has the highest prevalence (42%), followed by Bihar and Tripura (40% each). Oddly, the decline in child marriage has been paltry at best in these high-prevalence States. At the other end of the spectrum are Goa, Himachal Pradesh and Kerala (6% to 7%).

What are the ultimate factors?

The association between child marriage and adverse health outcomes is based on structural factors, which includes, social norms, poverty, and women’s education.

(1) The social norms compel the parents to begin preparations for a girl’s marriage once she has reached menarche. For example, 39% of child marriages take place among Adivasis and Dalits, 17% among advantaged social groups and the remaining among Other Backward Classes (OBC).

(2) The poverty plays an important role in child marriages. It is aimed to avoid the burden of the huge costs of dowry associated with delayed marriages. For example, 58% take place among the poorest wealth groups, about 40% of them take place among the middle 50% and only 2% of them take place among the top 10% of wealth groups.

(3) Education outcomes: Only 4% of child marriages in India take place among women who have completed more than 12 years of education. A significant proportion of child marriages takes place among women with less than 12 years of schooling.

Is increasing the legal age of marriage enough to improve the health outcomes?

A mere increase in age at marriage without an increase in education is not going to give good result. For example,

As per NFHS-5, Around 27% of illiterate women who married before 18 years, and around 24% of illiterate women who married at the age of 21 years are underweight.

However, women with 12 years of schooling married before 18 years and at 21 years have hardly any difference in underweight prevalence (14% and 13%, respectively).

Way Forward

The child marriage is substantially lower among women with a higher level of schooling. Therefore, an increase in years of schooling would increase the age at marriage.

Therefore, the government should focus more on increasing education in addition to increasing the age of marriage. If education is not improved, it might adversely impact the poor and illiterate.

It would be advisable that women complete education at least up to 12 years. For example, Bangladesh improved women’s education and imparted modern skills to increase their employability, which reduced child marriage and improves health and nutrition.

The schemes should ease the financial burden of marriage. The eligibility criteria of these schemes should include educational attainment in addition to age.

In the absence of an improvement in women’s schooling or skills, a legalistic approach to ending child marriage might become counterproductive.

Source: The post is based on an article “The way to end child marriage” published in the “The Hindu” on 15th June 2022.

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