The Unicef pegs the number of under-18 girls in India getting married every year at 1.5 million.
The Punjab & Haryana High Court recognising a ‘marriage’ between a 17-year-old girl and 36-year-old man—the court held that the girl was of marriageable age under Muslim personal law — has sparked a debate on child/adolescent (10-19 years of age) marriage in the country. While the high court recognised that the Muslim personal law holds attainment of puberty (held to be at 15 years, in the absence of evidence of puberty) as the age when a Muslim individual can choose to marry, the fact is that marriage at such an early stage in life has a strong positive correlation with poor health outcomes for women in their later years, especially if maternity has followed soon after. The World Health Organization lists complications during pregnancy and delivery as the leading cause of death among girls aged 15-19 years around the globe. The bulk of the abortions that girls in this age cohort undergo is unsafe, contributing to elevated mortality and morbidity levels. Adolescent mothers face higher risks of eclampsia, puerperal endometritis, and systemic infections, including chronic conditions like anaemia, than mothers in the 20-24 years, and their babies are at a higher risk of low birth-weight, preterm delivery and severe neonatal conditions. And, research by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), shows that there is a link between child stunting in India—which accounts for 11% of the world’s teenage pregnancy, as per an expert writing in The Quint—teenage pregnancy.
Against the backdrop of the risks associated with early pregnancy—90% of the adolescent mothers in developing countries like India are girls who are already in a marriage—the National Family Health Survey 4 (2014-15) (NFHS-4) reporting that 27% of girls under the age of 18 are married is rather shocking, even though there has been a sharp fall since the turn of the millennium. The Unicef pegs the number of under-18 girls in India getting married every year at 1.5 million. Given pushing up the age at marriage—and thereby, maternity and overall fertility rates—are tied to improving education, the momentum reported by the NFHS-4 needs to be sustained and built upon; NFHS-4 data showed that with a sharp increase in education levels among women and even men, total fertility rates declined for communities that record some of the highest fertility rates in the country.
Even when such a marriage is ‘consensual’—as the court has deemed it in the present instance—there is a need for the government to push greater awareness on delaying marriage and pregnancy. Where this a more particular problem, leaders of communities will need to drive social reform discouraging child marriage. The problem is of greater concern now, since the pandemic and related unemployment and rise in poverty seem to be eroding the gains made over the years; data from Maharashtra, reported by NPR, shows that officials stopped 208 child wedding between April and August 2020, while they had stopped 116 over April 2019-March 2020.