Opinion: Anupma Mehta
National health survey indicates the urgent need for lowering maternal and infant mortality rates as well as for promoting responsible and mature parenthood.
GoI’s decision last week to introduce a Bill increasing the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years has drawn a lot of attention receiving both bouquets and brickbats. Among its other suggestions the Bill seeks to amend the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 to bring women at par with men in terms of marriageable age (21 for both) and to prohibit child marriage irrespective of any currently prevalent law custom usage or practice.
Those supporting the move claim it would improve health and education outcomes for girls by reducing the incidence of child marriages and early pregnancies. On the other hand opponents of the Bill argue that the enactment of such a law in a deeply patriarchal society will not only compromise the autonomy of women in their marital choices vis-a-vis domineering parents but could also imperil the legal rights of currently married women below 21 should they be widowed or abandoned by their husbands before attaining the legal age.
Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani cited figures from the recently released compendium of fact sheets on health and empowerment indicators under the fifth round of the National Family Health Surveys (NFHS-5) for 2019-21 to bolster GoI’s argument. She pointed out that as per NFHS-5 data 7% of girls between 15 and 18 years were found to be pregnant and over 23% were married below the age of 18. These figures highlighted the urgent need for lowering both maternal mortality and infant mortality rates as well as for promoting responsible and mature parenthood for both the father and mother which has a direct bearing on their age at marriage.
The Bill is the result of a recommendation by a task force set up in June 2020 led by ex-Samata Party president Jaya Jaitley to examine this question. The task force report ostensibly avers that a delay in marriage has positive economic social and health benefits for families women children and society at large.
In this context it is imperative to unpack the small print in the Bill especially correlating it to the findings of NFHS-5 which covered 14 states and Union territories including Arunachal Pradesh Chhattisgarh Haryana Jharkhand Madhya Pradesh Odisha Punjab Rajasthan Tamil Nadu Uttar Pradesh Uttarakhand Chandigarh NCT Delhi and Puducherry. Some of the significant data in NFHS-5 pertain to the ‘Woman’s Schedule’ component of the survey covering a diverse spectrum of indicators including marriage fertility healthcare nutrition reproductive health women’s empowerment and domestic violence.
Wedding Belles Can Wait
The two key questions on gender-based indicators related to marriage in NFHS-5 concerned the proportion of women aged 20-24 years married before 18 and the adolescent fertility rate for women aged 15-19 years. At the state level the most impressive results on these questions were recorded by Rajasthan which showed a decline in child marriage among girls from 35.4% in NFHS-4 conducted during 2015-16 to 25.4 in NFHS-5. Simultaneously the adolescent fertility rate in the state declined from 46% to 31% over the two survey periods.
The other two states to record a notable fall in both the incidence of underage marriages and fertility rates among female teenagers were Chhattisgarh and Haryana. In the former the incidence of girls married below the marriageable age dropped from 21.3% to 12.1% and the adolescent fertility rate declined from 36% to 24%. The corresponding declines witnessed in Haryana were from 19.4% to 12.5% in child marriages and from 41% to 27% in the teenage pregnancy rate. Overall India recorded a reduction in child marriages from 26.8% to 23.3% whereas the adolescent fertility rate for women aged 15-19 dropped from 51% to 43%.
A December 2016 ActionAid study (bit.ly/3qtTK66) based on the India Human Development Survey 2 (IHDS-2) had shown a drop in the percentage of women in India in the 20-24 age group who were married before 18 from 56.8% in 1992-93 (NFHS-1) to 36.2% in 2011-12 (IHDS- 2). The IHDS conducted jointly by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and University of Maryland in two rounds in 2004-05 and 2011-12 interviewed 41554 households in 1503 villages and 971 urban neighbourhoods across India.
The IHDS figures certainly offered an occasion for some cheer but the ActionAid report came with the caveat that the number of child marriages and their prevalence among girls continued to be alarmingly high. Even the last census in 2011 revealed that 7.4 million persons were married before 18 and of these 88% were girls.
Man Proposes Law Disposes
So will the proposed Bill on increasing women’s marriageable age help improve these worrisome indicators? Activists of child and civil rights assert that passage of the Bill will lead to a toothless law if its implementation is not accompanied by resolution of related issues like the eradication of the education gap between boys and girls and strengthening women’s autonomy and awareness about their rights and privileges.
Until that happens however we could derive some consolation from the fact that at least the long-pending issue of ensuring gender equity in marriage by bringing at par the marriageable age for women and men has been brought into the mainstream discussion at the highest policy level.
Anupma Mehta is Editor at the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER). Views expressed in the article are personal.