Among the surprise announcements in the Union budget 2020-21 was the formation of a task force to review the minium age of marriage for women. The announcement refocused attention on identifying whether there is an issue and what that issue really is.
Since 1978, the legal age for marriage in India has been 18 years for women and 21 years for men. The age for women is in line with global norms, but just one in five countries globally have a different age requirement for men. This has been raised in the past.
In 2008, the 18th Law Commission recommended making 18 years the minimum age for marriage for both men and women.
The government now, however, intends to go in a new direction—raising the age at marriage for women, so that they delay childbirth, study longer and are healthier. These are laudable objectives. However, is a law needed for this, and will it work?
Despite the minimum age for marriage remaining unchanged since 1978, both men and women have been getting married later and later. Nearly half of married women now in their 40s were married by the time they were 18, but among women currently in their early 20s, that proportion is down to just 25%. The share of men married before they were 21 is even lower now.
Since the 1970s, women were more likely to marry someone older than them than someone of the same age or younger. It is only in the 2000s that this equation flipped. Indian women are now more likely to marry someone around the same age as them than someone older, shows data from the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) analysed by demographer Sonalde Desai and her colleagues.
The average age gap between the husband and wife has changed little over the last decade, remaining at around five years. However, among newly married women in their 20s, this gap has shrunk, indicating that the age gap over the next decade might be much narrower.
As the age at which women get married has increased, so has the age at which women have their first child. The median Indian woman now has her first child at age 21, two years after she gets married. However, one in five women still had their first child before she turned 18.
Yet, what these medians hide is that a quarter of newly married young women got married before the legal age and more than 10% of women had a child while still a minor. So, is the government right in thinking that a new law will push women to study longer and delay marriage and motherhood? For both marriage and childbirth, the evidence from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) and the IHDS show that urban women and those who are richer and better educated marry later. The poorest 40% of women are the ones who marry before 18, as are those with no schooling or with only basic primary education, and those from the poor states of West Bengal, Bihar, and Jharkhand. Women who have completed their schooling have their first child five years later on average than those who have finished less than five years of schooling.
Instead of a new law, the government could consider adopting a carrot-and-a-stick approach. The presence of women in local government decreases the likelihood of child marriage and states with greater enforcement capacity are those with fewer child marriages.
How does one encourage girls to stay in school longer? In the most recent National Sample Survey report on education, girls did report marriage being one of the reasons for dropping out. However, financial constraints and the need to look after domestic work were greater considerations for dropping out.
Rukmini S. is a journalist based in Chennai