22nd August – Minimum Age of Marriage

The marriage age misconception

From the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day, the Prime Minister declared that the government is considering raising the legal age of marriage for girls, which is currently 18 years.

What did the Prime Minister say?

He said, “We have formed a committee to ensure that daughters are no longer suffering from malnutrition and they are married off at the right age. As soon as the report is submitted, appropriate decisions will be taken about the age of marriage of daughters.”

Idea behind the formation of committee –

  • The Committee in question is the task force set up on June 4, announced earlier by the Finance Minister in her Budget Speech. It is widely understood (but not officially stated) that the task force is meant to produce a rationale for raising the minimum age of marriage for women to 21, thus bringing it on a par with that for men.
  • Since there is no obvious constituency that has been demanding such a change, the government seems to be motivated by the belief that simply raising the age of marriage is the best way to improve the health and nutritional status of mothers and their infants. Because it flies in the face of the available evidence, we need to ask where this belief is coming from.

Is this the correct assumption?

  • An article published in the prestigious journal The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health in May 2019 analysed data on stunting in children and thinness in mothers (as measures of under-nourishment) in the latest round of the National Family Health Survey 4 (2015-16).
  • The authors examine the strength of the association between many different causal factors (the mother’s age at childbearing, her educational level, living conditions, health conditions, decision-making power, and so on) and the health status of mother and child.
  • As it turns out, the poverty of the mother plays the greatest role of all by far — both in relation to her undernourishment and that of her child, but this is not acknowledged. The authors only concede that their cross-sectional design (using data from a single time period) “reduces causal inference. For example, becoming pregnant early might lead to reduced education or wealth; however, a woman from a poor background and lower education might be more likely to become pregnant early.” In other words, instead of early pregnancy causing malnourishment, they may both be the consequences of poverty.
  • In reality, the age only begins to have some real significance when pregnancies are delayed to ages of 25 and above, which is true of only a minuscule proportion of women in India. The article is unusually generous in its use of the usual scholarly caveats, but leaves itself open to being co-opted by larger agendas driven by the doctrine that “over-population” is the root of all evil in poor countries.

Why it is an exercise in futile?

  • Declining fertility rates – India’s fertility rates have been declining to well below replacement levels in many States, including those with higher levels of child marriage. This could be the reason why those advocating population control have chosen to shift from fuelling fears about booming populations to expressing concern for the undernourishment of children.
  • Costless and effortless – Perhaps there is a more cynical reason at work. Raising the age at marriage by amending the law is costless and can be effortlessly achieved by legal fiat. The government will not incur any financial costs for raising the age of marriage of girls from 18 to 21 years. But the change will leave the vast majority of Indian women who marry before they are 21 without the legal protections that the institution of marriage otherwise provides, and make their families criminalisable. Those who fervently believe that the minimum age of men and women should be the same in the name of gender equality can suggest that India follow global norms of 18 years for both.

SourceThe Hindu

QUESTION – The government has formulated a committee to review the legal minimum age of marriage for girls. However, critics point out that it is an exercise in futile. Why?

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