Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his Independence Day speech that the government may reconsider the marriageable age of a woman in a bid to fight malnutrition.
“We have formed a committee to ensure that the 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,” the PM said.
This follows from Nirmala Sitharaman’s Budget Speech on February 1, 2020, when a task force was proposed to look into the “age of a girl entering motherhood” in order to lower maternal mortality rates and improve nutrition levels. In June, the government announced a 10-member panel headed by Jaya Jaitley and comprising Secretaries from the Ministries of Human Resource Development; Women and Child Development; and Health and Family Welfare, among others. The committee has missed its July 31 deadline to finalise its report and give recommendations.
“This is a really important direction and a welcome recognition at the highest levels in the government about the links between the health of mothers and babies when a girl is married too early and has a child before the age of 20 years. The challenges are not straightforward though as reasons for early marriage vary across the country,” says Purnima Menon, Senior Research Fellow, at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
A study conducted by IFPRI and published last year in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health showed that children born to adolescent mothers (10-19 years) were 5 percentage points more likely to be stunted (shorter for their age) than those born to young adults (20-24 years), and 11 percentage points more stunted than children born to adult mothers. Children born to adolescent mothers also had 10 percentage points higher prevalence of low weight as adult mothers. It also highlighted other factors, such as lower education among teenage mothers and their poor economic status, which had the strongest links with a child’s height and weight measurements. It recommended that “increasing age at first marriage, age at first birth, and girl’s education are a promising approach to also improve maternal and child nutrition.”
However, activists caution against revising the age of marriage from 18 years to 21 years and appeal that the issue must be addressed by empowering girls as poverty and lack of safety are the main drivers of early marriage.
The National Coalition Advocating for Adolescent Concerns on behalf of 21 NGOs in its submission to the Task Force last month asserted that increasing the legal age of marriage for girls will only “artificially expand the numbers of married persons deemed underage and criminalise them and render underage married girls without legal protection. Instead, transformative, well resourced measures that increase girls’ access to education and health, create enabling opportunities and place girl’s empowerment at the centre will not just delay marriage but lead to a long term, positive health and education outcomes.” It also underlines that the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 instead of curbing child marriages, has only played as a weapon in the hands of parents to punish their daughters for elopement and is used in conjunction with other laws to punish boys in self-arranged marriages.
It has called for the need for awareness about safe sex, access to reproductive health information, improving access to education, and retaining girls in the education system so that they are able to transition from elementary to secondary education, and beyond which can then delay marriage. It recommended bringing education for three-to-five year-olds and 15-to-18 years under the Right to Education, instead of confining the law to children between six years to 14 years.
“Poverty, lack of educational opportunities and limited access to health care perpetuate this practice, which is largely viewed as a solution by the communities to not only secure their daughters’ future but also mitigate their dire economic circumstances. While legal enactment to prevent child marriages is necessary, we must simultaneously work towards keeping girls in school, invest in economic and social empowerment of women and girls, as well as targeted social and behaviour change communication (SBCC) campaigns to put an end to this harmful practice,” said Poonam Muttreja of the Population Foundation of India.