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Marriageable age and the debate

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During his address to the nation on India’s 74th Independence Day, Prime Minister said that the Center has set up a committee to reconsider the minimum age of marriage for woman. The Ministry of Women and Child Development in June 2020 set up a 10-member task force, headed by Jaya Jaitly, to examine the matters related to age of motherhood and lowering maternal mortality rate (MMR).

Should India re-think the age of marriage, in a bid to lower our alarming MMR? Can the sate decide the appropriate age for women and become mothers? And there’s the larger question: will this move actually save Indian mothers?

Where Does India Stand on Maternal Mortality Rate?

MMR is the number of maternal deaths due to birth or pregnancy related complications per 1,00,000 registered live births. Before we begin dissecting this development, we need to ask: what contributes to our high MMR? And what progress has been made so far? Sustainable Development Goal of Good Health for All has targets for reducing MMR to less than 70 women per 1,00,000 live birth.Closer to our National Health Policy of 2017 aimed at 100 per 1,00,000 births by 2020. Currently MMR in India is 113.

Evidence shows a clear link between early marriage and increased levels of anemia and nutritional deficiencies amongst girls and women. Newly married woman and girls are often under immense societal pressure to have a child, due to societal norms around proving fertility. In addition, low levels of knowledge and information regarding sexual and reproductive health result in early and unplanned pregnancies. Girls who are married at an early age, often lack marital agency and unable to share their preferences and need with their partners, particularly when it comes to negotiating safe sexual practices and using family planning methods.

MMR is intrinsically linked with gender equality: the lack of agency that women, especially young women, have in society and within their marriages coupled with low levels of education and access to family planning or affordable healthcare service result in many preventable deaths. A large number of maternal deaths are due to issue related to pregnancy and child birth. The girls are not physically and emotionally ready for motherhood if they get married and bear child earlier. Post-partum haemorrahage, hypertensive disorders and sepsis are most common causes of maternal deaths in India followed by complications of delivery and obstructed labour.

The lower the age, the more the risks. Teenage pregnancy is relatively high in rural areas. Nearly 1 in every 10 women in rural areas in the age group (15-19) have begun childbearing. Furthermore, 27.3% of married teenage girls have given birth to one child while 4.2% married girls have two or more children. Also, more than 50% women in the reproductive age (15-19) were found to be anemic.

Most of this data suggests that the threat to mortality increases manifold when the mother is below 18.

Why is there a minimum age for marriage?

In recent years, a transition of marital age and child bearing has been drastically changing in India. The minimum age of marriage, especially for women has been a contentious issue. The law evolved in the face of much resistance from religious and social conservatives. The latest international statistic by UNICEF indicated that one in three of the world’s child brides live in India. Of the country’s 223 million child brides, 102 million were married before turning 15. Currently, the law prescribes that the minimum age of marriage is 21 years and 18 years for men and women respectively. The minimum age of marriage is distinct from the age of majority which is gender-neutral. An individual attains the age of majority at the 18 as per the India Majority Act, 1875.

Marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights. Many factors interact to place a child at risk of marriage, including poverty, the perception that marriage will provide ‘protection’, family honor, social norms, customary or religious laws that condone the practice, an inadequate legislative framework and the state of a country’s civil registration system. While the practice is more common among girls than boys, it is a violation of rights regardless of sex.

The law prescribes a minimum age of marriage to essentially outlaw child marriages and prevent the abuse of minors. Personal laws of various religions that deal with marriage have their own standards, often reflecting custom.

For Hindus, Section 5(iii) of The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, sets 18 years as the minimum age for the bride and 21 years as the minimum age for the groom. However, child marriages are not illegal- even though they can be declared void at the request of the minor in the marriage.

In Islam, the marriage of a minor who has attained puberty is considered valid. The Special Marriage Act, 1954 and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 also prescribe 18 and 21 years as the minimum age of consent for marriage for women and men respectively.

Additionally, sexual intercourse with a minor is rape, and the ‘consent’ of a minor is regarded as invalid since she is deemed incapable of giving consent at that age.

Unfortunately, even secular law (The Special Marriage Act, which prescribes minimum age of marriage 18 and 21 years for women and men respectively) of our country contributes to stereotype that women are more mature than men of the same age and, therefore, can be allowed to marry sooner. Hence, we should fix the age of marriage on reasoning and not on the basis of stereotype and emotions.

Suggestions for task force

While a task force for maternal and child mortality/health outcomes is a welcome move, its stated intent to examine raising the legal age of marriage strikes a discordant note with past official reports. In September 2018, the National Human Rights Commission showed how higher education levels lead to a lower likelihood of women being married early and strongly recommended that the Right to Education Act, 2009, be amended to make it applicable up to the age of 18 years. Presently, children in the age group of 14-18 are outside the purview of RTE act and most likely to drop out. This stress on access and quality of education was backed by a report of the apex child right’s body, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, and the NGO Young Lives, which also showed how between 2005-06 and 2015-16, child marriage in 15-19 age group for girls has decreased from 26.5 per cent to 11.9 per cent.

The Maternal Mortality Rate in India declined consistently due to efforts of successive government on pre-natal and maternal care, increase in the enrolment ratio of girls in education at all levels and increase in the average of marriage. To increase this continues, the task force should focus on bringing in policy interventions that allow girls to complete their schooling years, develop adequate life skills and secure jobs for themselves.

Solutions for government strategies

  • Strengthen on-ground vigilance system and child protection schemes implemented by the government
  • Ensure the registration of births as well as marriages
  • Invest in social behavioural communication interventions to address regressive socio-cultural barriers that have an impact on decisions related to marriage and child birth
  • Strengthen adolescent health and maternal programmes ensuring adolescent girls have a right to access quality health information and services that are adolescent friendly and provide them with the knowledge and right support they need to manage their sexual reproductive health needs now and in the future.

There need to be a specific age-based survey to determine the most vulnerable ages and how to target those. Most maternal mortality occurs at the age of 20-25 when most women have children. Yes, the risk of dying is higher in those below 18, but the number of births is less, so increasing the marriage age will only have a marginal impact on overall MMR. It’s important to first rigorously determine the leading causes of maternal mortality and then focus on targeted-solutions in demographics and states.

Any task force recommendation is welcome, but focus should be on improving the current systems like the marriage limit rather than raising it further.

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