Context: Early marriage and early pregnancy play a central role in many of the problems associated with women.
Few stats related to women’s conditions
- MMR: India’s Maternal Mortality Ratio stands at 122 as per the latest Sample Registration System (SRS) bulletin from last year. This is a significant decline from an MMR of 556 in 1990.
- Child marriages: A parallel decrease in the instances of child marriage is also witnessed— 58 percent in 1970-80 to 21 percent by 2015-16.
- However, there is a wide variation amongst states. It is highest in West Bengal at 39 percent followed by Bihar and Jharkhand.
- The 2015-16 national family health survey (NFHS 4) also confirms the urban-rural difference in the incidence of early marriage — 17.5 percent in urban and 31.5 percent in rural women.
- Other concerns: Currently, three out of 10 children are having LBW (Low Birth Weight) and there is a neonatal mortality rate of 23/1000 live births.
- Early marriage and early pregnancy play a central role in this grim scenario.
The relationship between the level of education and early marriage
- With no education, 44.7 percent of women are married before 18 years.
- This level drops to 39.7 percent with primary education, 23.2 percent with secondary education, and 2.9 percent with higher education.
- With higher levels of education, women are also empowered to take decisions within the family and better equipped to inculcate safe sex, family planning, and safe abortion practices.
Problems associated with early pregnancy
- Entering pregnancy at adolescence (10-19 years), often under societal pressure, hinders women from attaining optimum height and prevents full growth of reproductive organs.
- This often results in higher chances of obstructed labor and mortality.
- Poor maternal height (<145> is reported to be one of the highest risk factors associated with chronic child undernutrition.
- The prevalence of malnutrition among children born to adolescent mothers is 11 percent higher than among the others.
Some prevalent socio-cultural determinants of early marriage
- Pethu, Udhalka vivah
- In tribal northern regions of the country such as Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, a young girl is “sent off” by her parents without a formal wedding, for cohabitation through what is referred to as Pethu, Udhalka vivah, etc.
- The marriage is later formalized whenever the girl’s parents have adequate resources to hold a community feast, often after a young girl has already borne children.
- In certain semi-urban and rural areas, the practice of Gauna is common.
- As per this custom, a girl child is married at a young age, but the girl continues to live in her natal home, only to consummate the marriage once puberty is attained.
Few suggestions for improving the conditions
- Delay the age of conception:
- Along with increasing the age of marriage, efforts need to be directed to delay the age of conception.
- Schemes such as universal registration of marriage could prove to be vital in providing newly married couples with timely information on family planning and family care.
- In addition, if the registration is linked with Aadhaar, it can facilitate support for women to enter pregnancy well-nourished and at the right time.
- Recognize the diversities in the society
- According to the 1978 amendment of the Child Marriage Restraint Act, and Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, the minimum age of marriage is 18 years for girls and 21 years for boys.
- The Task Force responsible for reviewing the age of marriage should recognize the diversities that may hamper its implementation.
- Keeping the girls in school for longer:
- Ensuring delayed marriage and pregnancy depends not just on the legal age but requires concerted efforts to keep girls in school for longer.
- This also needs to be complemented by enabling them to complete higher education or vocational training.
- The community often will find it difficult to adhere to the legal age unless an opportunity is provided and incentives built-in for a girl to have access to completing secondary school education.
A well-educated woman’s chances of gainful employment, making informed decisions, and exercising greater agency in the household are unparalleled and monumental in breaking the cycle of poverty, early marriage, and ill health, as well as the inter-generational cycle of malnutrition.
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