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INDIAN WOMEN’S POOR HEALTH INDICATORS

Focus: GS-II Social Justice

Why in news?

The government has set up a special task force to advise it on the issue of raising the age of marriage for girls from 18 to 21 years.

Introduction

  • India is usually near the bottom of the international rankings on gender indicators.
  • India also has the largest absolute number of girls who marry below the age of 18, therefore, raising the age of marriage to 21 could well be seen as a step towards gender equality that also addresses the health problems of young mothers and their infants.

Child Marriage

  • The topic of “child marriage” in contemporary India has not received the attention it needs.
  • In the latest periodic National Family Health Surveys (NFHS) survey of 2015-16 – the proportion of those in the age group 20-24 years who married before reaching 18 years of age – is more than 25% (reducing from more than 45% in 2005-06).
  • Along with such impressive declines, NFHS-4 shows that only 6.6 per cent were marrying below the age of 15.
  • In other words, the problem in India today is no longer of child marriage but late adolescent marriage, and a declining one.
  • It also shows that there are no differences between Hindus and Muslims in these trends.

Benchmark Age – 18

  • There is an almost global consensus on 18 years as the age of social adulthood.
  • A common threshold for voting rights, driving privileges and much else (with employment and sexual consent at even younger ages), it is also the most common standard for marriage across the world.
  • Scientists have recognised it as the age when the female body reaches full development, such that a healthy woman with adequate ante-natal care can be expected to have a healthy baby.
  • It is already the legal age of marriage in India.

Arguments in favour of raising age limit

  • Raising the age of marriage will raise the age of motherhood, and thus the probability that mother and child will be healthier.
  • It will also lower the fertility rate.

Concerns regarding the proposed “advantages”

  • Our health indicators on young mothers and their infants are as bad as they are because poorer (and therefore more malnourished) women are marrying at younger ages compared to their wealthier counterparts.
  • If poor women continue to remain poor and malnourished, raising their age of marriage by a few years will change very little.
  • Much of the same problems will recur when they marry at 21 years.
  • Moreover, fertility rates in India have been declining sharply.
  • Poor families today are having small families.
  • On the other hand, if the legal age of marriage for women were raised to 21, and the trend shown in NFHS-4 holds, then 56 per cent of Indian women in the 20-24 year age group (who married below 21) would be without legal protections and whose families would be liable for punishment under the new law. This number shoots up to 75 per cent for those in the poorest 20 per cent of the population.

Other things to tackle first

  • Numerous studies show that parents are investing in their daughters’ education (with near gender parity even in higher education), but our education system is failing the young.
  • To bring genuine change, we need free education beyond schooling for girls, coupled with job guarantees, especially for those from rural areas and vulnerable social locations. This would make it genuinely possible for girls to have some say as to whether, how or when they wished to marry.

-Source: Indian Express

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October 2022
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