National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data show that higher education levels could play a greater role than wealth in delaying a woman’s marriage.
Laws that prescribe minimum age for marriage in India:
- The Hindu marriage act (1955), Indian Christian marriages act (1872) and special marriages act (1954) prescribed the minimum age of marriage as 18 years for the bride and 21 years for the groom.
- Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 prohibits marriage below 18 years for women and 21 years for men.
Child marriage refers to a marriage to which either of the contracting parties is a child (if a male, has not completed 21 years of age, and if a female, has not completed 18 years of age). In India, it is estimated that there are over 24 million child brides. According to the National Family Health Survey, 40% of the World’s 60 million child marriages take place in India. According to NFHS-5 data, the share of women aged 20-24 who married before turning 18 is around 23%. Child marriage is far more prevalent amongst girls and this highlighted the gender dimension of the problem.
- Poverty: Poor families resort to child marriages to avoid all sorts of burden of a female child, like expenditure on education, dowry etc.
- Patriarchy: Girl in our patriarchal(patrilocal) set up is believed to be somebody’s property and are considered to be a liability as they are not seen as individuals who can contribute productively to the family. These beliefs lead parents to marry the girl child.
- Social mobility: The institution of marriage is often used to strengthen economic and social ties between different families and a young girl may be offered to a family in order to improve the financial and social standing of the girl’s family.
- Insecurity: To secure from offences like assaults, eve teasing against unmarried girls, their parents are in a hurry to marry their daughters soon after she attains puberty or even before that.
- Avoiding share in Ancestral Property: Early marriage is a way of denying share of ancestral property to females.
- Dropout of school: Dropout of teenage girls from school due to lack of basic amenities like toilets or for helping in the household work when both the parents go out for work, is one of the reasons for early marriage of girls.
- Legal conundrum: Prohibition of child marriage act prohibits marriage of any women before the age of 18 but Muslim personal law mentions puberty or age of 15 years as minimum age of marriage for women.
Age of Marriage
Rationale behind raising the minimum age of Marriage for women:
- The Constitution guarantees gender equality as part of the fundamental rights and also guarantees prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sex. The existing law do not adequately secure the Constitutional mandate of gender equality in marriageable age among men and women.
- Incidence of early marriage and childbearing are amongst the important causes of undernutrition in India. Children born to teenage mothers are more likely to be undernourished than children of adult mothers. India is home to more stunted children than any other country and is one of the ten countries with the largest burden of teenage pregnancy.
- It is important to bring down the incidence of teenage pregnancies, which are not only harmful for women’s overall health but also result in more miscarriages and stillbirths.
- Early marriage often reduces the women labour force participation and increasing the legal limit of minimum age will give more chance for women to work.
- Early marriages reduces the educational and employment opportunities for women and make them financially dependent on men, which eventually results in skewed division of labour in domestic sphere.
- Age of marriage of females is a key factor that influences fertility. Demographic studies have revealed the apparent link between early marriage and increasing fertility rates.
- Restriction on choice of marriage: It can be used by parents to punish their daughters who marry against their wishes or elope to evade forced marriages, domestic abuse and housework.
- Legal limits are not successful: According to NFHS-5 (2019-2021), 23.3% of women aged 20-24 years married before the age of 18, which shows that the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA), 2006, has not been successful in preventing child marriages.
- Depriving legal protection: Increasing the legal age at marriage for girls will expand the number of persons deemed underage and render them without legal protection.
- Declining fertility rates: India’s fertility rates have already been declining to well below replacement levels in many States, including those with higher levels of child marriage.
- Poverty is the underlying reason: Poverty and lack of higher education are major underlying reasons for early marriages. According to an analysis of NFHS-4 (2015-2016) data, 56% girls were married below the age of 21 and this figure was as high as 75% among the poorest category of population.
Instead of focusing on age of marriage, following steps may eventually reduce the age of marriage
- Conditional cash transfer schemes to improve the attendance of girls in schools and skill training.
- Providing Increased access to contraceptives.
- Ensuring a safe environment to women free from the constant threat of rape and sexual assault which is why girls are married off early.