Delhi: While early marriages for women may be a pressing concern in India, turns out the issue is equally, if not more, startling for men.
Data put out by the Annual Health Survey for 2012-13, shows that a higher percentage of men marry below their legal age of 21 years, as against percentage of women who marry below the age of 18 years in nine states in the country. These states include Assam, Bihar, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
The nine states account for 50% of the total population of India, 61% of births, 71% of infant deaths, 72% of under 5 deaths, and 62% of maternal deaths. Altogether, 284 districts were covered under the survey: 23 districts of Assam, 37 districts of Bihar, 16 of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, 18, Madhya Pradesh, 45, Odisha, 30, Rajasthan, 32, Uttar Pradesh, 70, and Uttarakhand, 13.
Of all the states, Rajasthan had the worst record of 27.5% men in 2012-13 married below the age of 21 years. In case of women too, Rajasthan fared poorest at 14.3%. The lowest share of under-age marriages for both men and women was seen in the case of Uttarakhand at 5.5% and 1.8%, respectively.
A look at the district-wise data shows that, districts with high under-age marriage for women need not have the same thing for men as well. For instance, in the case of Madhya Pradesh, Jhabua district had the highest percentage of under-age male marriages at 55.3%. The district with the highest proportion of female under-age marriage in this case was in Tikamgarh at 27.1%. Similarly, Ganaganagar in Rajasthan reported the lowest share of under-age male marriages at 11.3%. The corresponding figure for females was at a mere 3.1%.
What explains this phenomenon? Experts believe that one reason for this could be that the legal restriction for marriage age for men has had less of an impact than that of the minimum age threshold for women.
“Marriage age of 21 for men was devised as a threshold for men from a population control perspective and has never held the moral force of movements like girls. The real issue is that much of the advocacy for increasing age at marriage has been around protection of childhood and adolescence. This fits in well with an age 18 cut-off for girls,” said Sonalde Desai, Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland.
Another reason could be the narrowing gap between the ages of men and women for marriage. With the pressure from the government for women to marry at legal age being greater than the pressure on men, experts argue that it is possible that the age of marriage for men is either staying the same or moving closer to the age of marriage for women.
“18 and 21 are government artifacts, so not really what society thinks is the appropriate age for marriage. Usually, there is a gap of 3-5 years (used to be higher) between men and women’s marriage ages,” said Ravinder Kaur, Professor of Sociology at IIT-Delhi.
Of all the districts surveyed in these states, majority of them reported less than 10% of marriages of women below the legal age. Only two districts each in Bihar and Rajasthan reported 30-40% of women being married below the age of 18 years in 2012-13.
A government appointed panel had in April this year cited the recommendation of the 18th Law Commission to make a case for recognizing 18 years as the age of marriage for both sexes, to remove discrimination between men and women. While there can be no straitjacket formula on marriageable age to fit every case, doing away with under-age marriages should be a priority in the case of both men and women.