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India may raise the age of marriage for girls. Not everyone thinks that's a good idea

A bride in India. There's a movement to get the government to raise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21.
A bride in India. There's a movement to get the government to raise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21.

On a hot afternoon in August, 16-year-old Punam Mitharwal finished a routine college test and made her way to the nearest post office in her northern Indian town of Hisar to send a special bit of mail. It was a short letter written in Hindi on a postcard addressed to India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Half a dozen of her girlfriends accompanied her, each with a similar letter. They all contained a specific request — to raise the legal age of marriage for girls to 21.

In India, the legal age of marriage is currently 18 for girls and 21 for boys. Mitharwal says several of her friends were married off by their family as soon as they turned 18. "At that age, girls are not prepared for marriage," she says. "They are just out of high school when their parents arrange their marriage and stop their education."

A legal backing, she says, can help girls convince their parents to let them pursue higher education and put them on a path to financial independence.

Mitharwal's rationale is shared by the Indian government, which last year appointed a task force to review the legal age of marriage. Raising the age of marriage would "prepare [girls] physiologically and psychologically to shoulder the responsibility of marriage and children," India's health ministry said in a statement posted on Twitter. It would also increase women's participation in the workforce and be "a boon for maternal and child health," it added.

Among feminist scholars and activists, there is overwhelming acceptance of the benefits of delaying marriage. But the idea of a legal fix to postpone girls' marriage has alarmed many of them. They say it might not be a good way to discourage early marriage or improve maternal health and might end up backfiring instead.

Several studies show a correlation between higher age at marriage (and thus pregnancy) and better health outcomes for the mother and child. Pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading cause of death among girls age 15–19 years globally, according to the World Health Organization. Mothers age 10–19 years face higher risks of eclampsia, puerperal endometritis and systemic infections than women age 20–24 years. Delaying marriage benefits babies as well. When the mother is under 20, there's a higher risk of preterm delivery, low birthweight and severe neonatal conditions, WHO adds.

Some say a higher marriage age could backfire

"But the data is tricky," says Mary E. John, a researcher at the Centre for Women's Development Studies. Early marriage mostly occurs in lower-income families residing in rural areas that lack proper access to health care and education. Women from such families may be more malnourished than their urban counterparts, who are generally better off and are marrying at higher ages. Poverty, not age, is the driving force behind poor health indicators among rural young women, John says.

"The fact that adolescent mothers are less likely to be educated, wealthy, urban dwellers means that they are less likely to access the antenatal care which can help them negotiate a safe path through pregnancy and childbirth," noted one study by researchers from the University of Cambridge. The researchers added that the higher rates of mortality for adolescent wives and mothers didn't hold up when socio-environmental factors such as wealth and education were controlled.

"If you [a young woman] are stunted or anemic [at 18], then you are going to be just as stunted or anemic at 21," John says, adding that in the absence of nutrition and health interventions for women facing greater health risks, raising the age of marriage by a few years would change very little.

Instead, it could create a host of new problems. Activists say it could make it difficult for young people to marry someone of their choice and further tighten parents' grip on young women's personal lives.

Parents generally arrange marriages in India, typically within the same religion or caste. Intercaste and interfaith couples who marry for love often face threats of violence from their communities and even family members.

So young couples sometimes run away from home to marry, hoping to escape harassment and emotional blackmailing from family members. And if they're over 18, their decision to marry is legally sound and can't be disputed by parents.

A higher legal age for marriage could lead to criminal prosecution of underage couples who elope

By contrast, when girls who are under 18 elope, parents often use India's child marriage law to retaliate, says a report by the legal resource group Partner for Law in Development. The report found that most prosecutions under the law are cases brought about by parents against their daughters' romantic relationships with a person of her choice — for example, criminal prosecution of the daughter's husband.

An increase in the legal age for marriage would mean those in the 18-to-21 age bracket who elope to marry would become criminals, the report says.

"The law will be weaponized to serve honor, caste and community controls against young couples while not stopping underage marriages," the report noted. "The outcome of the law will render girls voiceless in personal decision-making for longer, with legal backing."

As for the issue of delaying marriages to age 21 – that seems to be happening even without a legal mandate. In recent decades, data shows a rising trend in the age at which women are marrying. The mean age for a bride at marriage was 22.3 years in 2018 compared to 18.3 years in 2001.

So John thinks the government would be better off avoiding the issue of legal age and instead should fight to end the practice of dowry, which incentivizes early marriage. The younger the bride, the lower the dowry her parents have to pay the groom's side. John says the government should also push for better standards of education and better connections to help graduates find jobs.

And even though some teenagers are urging that the age be changed, other youth have a different perspective.

Last year, about 100 civil society organizations submitted a report to the task force reviewing the marriage age. It was titled "Young Voices" and included opinions of almost 2,500 children, adolescents & young people, who raised several concerns including an increase in female feticide if the age of marriage is raised to 21.

"Girls will be seen as a bigger burden [because of the extra years of supporting them before marriage]. Parents will say 'why did we have to give birth to girls!'" one participant noted.

Those surveyed in the report did feel — like the letter-writer Mitharwal — that raising the minimum age would stop parents from forcing their daughters to drop out from school to marry and help girls bargain for more time. But they also felt that if their village lacked proper schools/colleges or if the quality of education was poor, then a change in the law wouldn't stop early marriage.

Moreover, lack of educational opportunities is often what drives parents into marrying their daughters at a young age. Keeping girls in school, especially secondary school, is a key strategy in reducing child marriage, according to the World Bank.

And even the postcard-writer Mitharwal admits that her request to raise the minimum age to 21 may not translate into real change. In addition to the legal revision that she supports, she says the government needs to undertake large-scale awareness programs to explain to parents why delaying marriage by a few years to let their daughter study is important.

"We need to explain to parents that a girl is not a burden. She can also make them proud and get a job and take care of them," says Mitharwal. "She can do whatever a boy can."

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