A mindset-shift is in progress in India. In a country where half the girls were pushed into wedlock before they turned 18 — the minimum legal age for marriage — till a few years ago, more and more women are exchanging wedding vows late.
Thanks to aggressive campaigns, incentives and stringent laws, early marriages look to be on their way out. The latest demographic indicators provided by the health and family welfare ministry reveal that the national average age of marriage for girls was 20.6 years in 2008, up from 18.3 years in 2001.
The data reflects a progressive change in attitude towards the girl child over the last three years. In 2006-07, a National Family Health Survey-3 had reported that more than 50% of women in India were married off before 18. In comparison, men got married at a median age of 23.4 years.
According to the ministry’s figures, in Jammu & Kashmir, women are getting married at an average age of 23.3 years. The corresponding figure for Kerala is 22.8; for Punjab 22.2; for Delhi and Himachal Pradesh 22.1 each; for Maharashtra 20.9; for Karnataka 20.3; and for Gujarat 21.
In Rajasthan, a state notorious for child marriages, the average is up to 19.8 years from 16.6 years in 2001. In some areas like Tonk, Barmer and Jhalawar girls were being married off as early as 12. In 2006, about 80% of girls, roughly 31,000, were estimated to have been married away at this tender age in Tonk.
However, all is not hunky dory in the state still. As many as 24 cases of child marriage were reported in Rajasthan’s Barmer district this Wednesday, indicating the problem still persists.
Health ministry officials accepted that there were a few cases of child marriage but denied that such marriages were rampant. They said the trend was confined to a few pockets and did not reflect the general trend.
As per the 2001 census, seven states had girls marrying before 18. These were Andhra, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. However, the 2008 data shows that none of the states are into early marriages now and girls are being married almost a year after they turn 18.
In fact, the lowest average age of marriage was 19.5 in Bihar, followed by Andhra (19.6) and Rajasthan (19.8).
“Many social indicators will transform if the age of marriage is delayed,’’ said Ranjana Kumari, an activist and director of the Centre for Social Research. Early marriage has a correlation with many other problems like maternal and infant mortality, domestic violence, illiteracy and disinheritance of property rights, she added.
Despite being sceptical over the accuracy of these figures, she agreed that laws like Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, may have played an important role in the change.
The act, which came into effect from November 1, 2007, bans child marriage in any form and empowers courts to annul such marriages besides making penal provisions for people who solemnise and fix those. Even participation in such a marriage is an offence. Solemnisation of child marriages is a cognisable and non-bailable offence now.
According to a 2005 Unicef report, women married as children were often victims of domestic violence. India had the highest rate of domestic violence among women married before 18 with a rate of 67%. The report also said that since most of the girls were married off by 16, they were mothers by 17.
Early marriage and motherhood remains one the major reason for high infant and maternal mortality in the country. Having a maternal mortality rate of 450 per one lakh live births, India contributes 23% to the global maternal deaths.