The current legal age at marriage for girls in India at 18 years is grossly violated as observed in the recent national Family health survey.
Every fourth woman in ages 20-24 is married before the legal age of marriage. This is despite the finding that under age marriages of girls have declined from 26.8 per cent to 23.3. per cent during last five years. This is more of a concern in rural India with nearly 27 per cent of marriages being below the legal age of marriage as against the urban scene where the underage marriages constitute 14.7 per cent.
These prevailing trends of underage marriage as well as child marriage of Indian girls undoubtedly counters the 'beti bachao beti padhao' initiative of the government. While numerous incentives are put in place by the union government as well as various state governments to alter these trends, there seems to be very slow progress on this front.
Underage marriage coupled with premature motherhood pose a greater challenge with 6.8 per cent of females in the 15-19 age bracket were revealed to be mothers or pregnant at the time of survey. This phenomenon too has a clear rural-urban divide with its rarity in urban areas and greater prevalence (8 percent) in rural areas.
Delaying the marriage age of girls has a direct correspondence with the trend in male age at marriage which too depicts a frequency of one in five males of age 25-29 years being married below the legal age of 21 years. These national trends have their own regional variation revealing a greater frequency of above 40 per cent of child marriages in states of Bihar, West Bengal and Tripura. In addition, these states also experience premature motherhood among the women of ages 15-19.
While legislation is a deterrent to the persistence of this phenomenon, the changing valuation of girl child remains the key along with the transformation in the marriage institution. Marriage till date has remained a path of salvation for a majority of girl children in India in the absence of any encouragement towards reaping their capability potential beyond motherhood. As long as marriage and motherhood does not become a real option/choice for Indian women, any amount of legislation may not really lead to conformity with the legally sanctioned age at marriage.
The fundamental premise of making a real option/choice depends on the three Es: educate, employ and empower. Ensuring a certain level of education for girl children makes them ready for paid employment and this translates into a self-valuation making the option/choice of marriage and motherhood a reality. At the current juncture girl children are victims of poverty, deep seated social norms and sexual harassment that serves as a barrier to their continuing education. Similar to the noon-meal scheme towards retention of children in school, there has to be a focus on retaining girl children in school beyond puberty that requires addressing inhibition at home front and a supportive school environment for their adolescent needs. In the absence of a toilet facility for girl children in schools, reduced locational distance of schools towards minimising travel would go a long way in ensuring the retention of girls till secondary level of education.
The social valuation of educating girl children in general with an equal imagination towards making them worthy of paid employment like male children will bring about a change translating into making the choice/option of marriage and motherhood real. With shrinking fertility levels, there is every likelihood of equal valuation of male and female children by the parents, but then such a circumstance needs to be facilitated with measures that encourage families to shape girl children as economic providers rather than care-givers and unpaid workers as mothers and wives. Like male children, she too should be granted space for maximum blossoming.
If one wishes to offer a plausible explanation for the persistence of underage marriage of girls, then the prime reason is poverty wherein parents are not sufficiently capable of educating them to attain an optimum level of education. This failure leads to exchanging them in early marriage. The prevailing social norms, which see only the male as the provider, do discourage parents from making an investment in girl children.
The access to education for girl children is further hindered by the physical access to schools, the potential for sexual harassment beyond adolescence and absence of appropriate facilities at schools in keeping with the needs of girl children. This calls for a systematic approach and adoption of measures of retaining girl children till higher secondary level of education.
Evils of underage marriage is well known but its sustained prevalence has a societal underpinning that can hardly be redressed with legislation. Continuing education will delay marriage, getting into paid work prior to marriage will enable choice and finally it will translate into autonomy contesting the norms that subjugates their economic worth. Hence the message is to break barriers to educational progress, economic engagement and empowerment that will stop under-age marriage and reproduction.
(K S James is Director and Senior Professor, International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai. firstname.lastname@example.org
Uday Mishra is Professor, International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai. email@example.com)