In a progressive move, the government of India has set up a task force to revise women’s legal marriage age in India from 18 to 21. The government-appointed ten-member task force aims is to reduce the maternal mortality rate and infant mortality rate in India due to the early pregnancies. It will also focus on encouraging female higher education and removing the gender parity being followed in the legal marriage age of a man and a woman in India. However, in order to achieve these definitive goals of women empowerment across the nation, both in rural and urban India, the government will have to focus on encouraging and increasing women's education in the country. SheThePeople spoke to different experts to bring you this report.
An Empowering Decision
Raising women's legal marriage age will certainly give more power and legal support to all women so that they can choose the opportunities to educate and empower themselves before being burdened with marriage and motherhood. “The extension of three years will provide a substantial time window to the young girls to get enrolled in college after completing their class 12th. This will allow them to create a foundation for their career, which is not possible if they get married at 18. A good college education can further lead these girls to get good placement offers or job opportunities and help them lead a financially independent life,” said Rashmi Tiwari, Founder and Director of the Aahan Tribal Foundation of India, to SheThePeople.
Adding further, she said, “The increase in the legal marriage age will strengthen the voice of the NGOs who are trying to bring a behavioural shift in the society towards the girls and their marriage. The parents of the girls, who are living in rural areas where child marriage is common, can be convinced to not to push their daughters into marriage by citing the laws and the consequences of breaking those.”
Decrease The Maternal And Neonatal Mortality Rate
Though the median age at which women have their first child has increased to twenty-one, 26.1 per cent of women of age 20-24 were pregnant at 18 years old as per the National Family Health Survey of 2015-16. But in rural areas, 1 in every 10 women who had no schooling started bearing their first child at the age between 15 to 19 years. This further led to a rise in the maternal and infant mortality rate due to complications in pregnancy and lack of awareness about child care. The number of women and girls in India who died due to issues during pregnancy and childbirth in the year 2017 was as high as 35,000.
Senior obstetrician and Gynaecologist Suruchi Desai told SheThePeople that the decision to increase the marital age of a woman is good because the physical growth of a girl is complete by 21 years and hence if she marries after that she is physically and mentally in a better zone.
Speaking about how the decision will affect the Maternal Mortality Rate and Neonatal Mortality Rate, Dr Desai said, “Mature mother will take mature, informed decisions hence she will plan her pregnancy and take due care and precautions during pregnancy thus, in the long run, we will see a drop in MMR and NMR ( neonatal mortality rate).”
She further added, “A girl’s biological clock is best between 25-30 years. If she conceives at this age, chances of medical complications are minimal, the spacing between children is comfortably possible and her health is also not compromised.”
Women's Education Key Factor
The National Family Health Survey of 2015-16 reveals that 48 per cent of young women in India of age 20-24 marries at the age of 20. This means that women are already choosing to marry later than the minimum marital age set up by the 1978 amendment of Sharda Act which is 18 years and it is a positive sign.
However, it is important to note here that the women who choose to marry at 20 or later are mostly urban and well educated. The survey revealed that poorest women with no schooling or only a primary education tend to marry at 17 or 18 years old and the median age of motherhood is 20. While women who are rich and educated with 12 or more years of schooling marry at 20-24 years of age and give birth to their first child at 22-24. The NFHS-4 also reveals that the maternal mortality rate and under-five mortality rate of children decreases with the schooling of the mother and an increase in their financial status. These data clearly show that poverty and lack of education is one of the factors of early marriage, teenage pregnancy or even child marriage of a woman.
“Lack of education breeds poverty and gender-based violence. It cripples the ability of the girls to build a successful career and lead a financially independent life. There is a direct correlation between educated and financially empowered women and their marriage-age and reproductive health,” added Rashmi.
Although the female literacy rate in India has increased to 65.46 per cent in 2011, it is still much lower than men (82.14 %) and the world average of the female literacy rate (82.65%). A significant number of women are left illiterate, unemployed and victims of patriarchy and poverty. So along with revising the marital age of women, there is a need for the government to focus on encouraging education and financial empowerment of women to empower women conclusively.
How can the government encourage female education effectively?
“The Government must ensure a basic level of education to all the children and especially girls as they are going to be playing a very important role in shaping the future of their daughters/sons. Further, the Government must partner with NGOs which are working towards providing vocational skills to the girls so that they can find a good job after they complete their education,” Rashmi says.
How Poverty Breeds Gender Biases
The most important factor affecting the education of women in rural and some parts of urban areas also is poverty. It is often because of the lower financial status that families in rural areas do not encourage their daughters for education. Speaking about how poverty hinders the self-development of girls in India, she added, “In many parts of India the parents are forced to send them to work as domestic help to earn money for themselves and their families. This can be stopped if the mothers are equipped to earn their livelihoods and have the means to support the development of their girl child.”
How can we push the parents to educate their daughters rather than forcing them to marry? “By using role-models and showcasing them that the girls who took the route of education are doing better than other girls who were married off at an early age,” said Rashmi Tiwari.
“Further, the government should provide good education infrastructure to reduce the financial burden on parents for teaching their daughters. Emphasis should be more on technical training, vocational training even teaching farming in a modernised way. Anganwadi can also play a huge role in ensuring that the girls are receiving basic resources from the government towards their health and nutrition. The government-run schools should also adopt technology with which they can collaborate with volunteers to train/ coach/ inspire the girls,” she added.
The Gap Of Rural And Urban India
The reports and surveys on marriage and pregnancy of women in India show a stark gap based on their rural and urban upbringing. "If we compare the girls residing in urban areas to girls in rural India, education, awareness and job opportunities are the differentiating factor for their economic, social, physical and mental state, " said Rashmi Tiwari.
NFHS-4 says 71.5 per cent of rural women are married by the age of 20-24 as opposed to only 53.1 per cent of urban women. Addressing this gap, Rashmi Tiwari said, “The rural areas will take a little longer than the urban areas in conforming to the laws. The chief reason is that many areas are still quite isolated and heavily governed by influential locals who believe in patriarchy. In areas where we work, child marriage is still a common practice.
“So, it will be difficult to see the full benefits of the increase in women's legal marriage age,” she said.
Bringing down the focus on strengthening women's education, Rashmi Tiwari said, “However, with concerted efforts and coupled with the strengthening of the education system by the government, rural areas will slowly push back the practice of child marriage and adopt measures to equip girls with skills to earn money.”
“This gradual increase will result in creating stronger, independent and empowered girls and women, which will, as a result, break the intergenerational vicious cycle of gender-based violence,” she asserted.