The practice of marrying girls at a young age is quite common in many parts of the world. While defining early marriage as a phenomenon, the commonest way to define it will be by the age of the bride and the groom. Any marriage where either or both the contracting parties is a child who has not attained majority is defined as an early marriage.1
In some developing countries like India, adolescent motherhood is closely associated with early marriage as a consequence of early initiation of sexual activity. Marriages often take place even before the girls have attained puberty. In many parts of the world, parents encourage the marriage of their daughters while they are still children in hope that the marriage will benefit them both financially and socially, while also relieving financial burdens on the family. Sometimes they prefer to get their daughter married early predicting or assuming the extra burden of providing a secured life to the unmarried girl in a patriarchal society where still the girls are not so safe.
In most countries of the south Asian region, nearly 60 percent of all girls are married by the age of 18 years, with one-fourth girls marrying by the age of 15 years. In India, every third adolescent girl in the age group of 15-19 years is married. Around 57 percent of girls in India are married before the age of 18 years (Demographic Health Surveys 1996-2001).
Marriages in India
Despite the rising age at marriage, and laws prohibiting early marriages in India (Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 and its amendment in 1978), a large percentage of girls are still getting married at a young age. In contrast, only a few young males are married in adolescence.
In India, every third adolescent girl in the age group of 15-19 is married and every second married adolescent girl has given birth to a child (NFHS-II). The NFHS-II also showed that one-fourth of the young girls in the age group of 20-24 years were married before the age of 15, and one-tenth were married even before they were 13.
In India, the median ages at marriage is the lowest in the world, with Rajasthan having the lowest median age at marriage.2 This tradition of early marriage is deeply ingrained in Rajasthani culture, which has an adverse effect on girls’ lives. About more than 15 percent of the girls in the state are married even before they are 10. The phenomenon of early marriage is highly related to the schooling of girls especially when they are in the 10-14 age group.3
Why early marriages occur?
Marriage is being considered as the synthesis of the individual and social wishes. As an institution, it provides a social sanction to the bondage between two individuals. Thus, marriage is traditionally a religious ceremony and a sacred duty and is looked upon as an alliance between the two families rather than of two individuals. In Indian context, it could be said that still today, the major decision making power regarding the marriage lies in the hands of family of the two individuals willing to come under the bondage.
Parents choose to marry off their daughters early for a number of reasons:
§ Gender bias encourages the early marriage of girls: In the patriarchal family structure, the attitude towards women is that they are not to be left independent. So, at every stage of a woman’s life, she is under the domination of some male member of the family: father, husband, or son. The purpose of marriage is the transference of the father’s dominion over a girl in favor of her husband. Such transfer is expected to take place before the girl reaches the age when she might question it.
§ Control over female sexuality and reproduction and concern regarding virginity: Early marriage may also be seen as a strategy to avoid girls becoming pregnant outside marriage. And since an early marriage reduces the possibility of any suspicion regarding the virginity of a young girl, marriages are arranged either immediately after or sometimes even before she attains puberty.
§ Paucity of information available with the girls acts as the catalytic agent: Woman’s ability to obtain information and use it as a basis for decision-making in the family is not recognized in some societies; rather it is denied by restricting her movements. Hence young girls are married in order to ensure that she is submissive to her husband or are placed firmly under his control and works hard for her in-laws’ household and also accept the traditional gender roles.
§ Poverty as the big force influences human behaviour: Poor families may regard a young girl as an economic burden. The reason being that the girl’s parents are required to give dowry to the bridegroom and his family and it is believed that this amount may go on increasing as marriage gets delayed. Also if there are more girls in a family, all are married off at one time to save the expenses incurred on the ceremony.
§ Female-virginity and it’s social connotation over the family prestige creates an atmosphere of social insecurity that encourages early marriage of girls: Parents often perceive that an early marriage offers protection for their daughter from the dangers of sexual assault, or more specifically, provides the care of a male guardian who has predictably more power because of lower age than the father of the girl. Moreover, if a girl gets assaulted, her family prestige gets hurt. This motivates the male members of the family and in many cases even the women of the family advocate for early marriage of the girl as it helps them to bypass the risk of getting bad name to the family because of the girl.
§ Poor knowledge regarding the adverse consequences of early marriage is the core reason: Early marriages usually have adverse effects on the health and development of adolescent girls, since a young girl has little ability to negotiate sexual activity, especially if she is married to an older man. However, illiteracy and lack of awareness results in high rates of maternal and infant mortality and morbidity in India. Absence of this information among the common people makes them either indifferent or eager to get their daughters married early.
§ Myths and misconceptions regarding the early marriage as a system: Early marriages are often considered to maximize childbearing, particularly those preferring male children to carry forward their family name.
§ Fear of HIV infection has also encouraged men in many countries to seek younger 'partners'. Early marriage is one way to ensure that young girls are 'protected'. 4
§ Lack of awareness of the law: In India illiteracy is predominant, particularly among the rural population and as a result they are unaware of the legal age for marriage.
§ Pressures from older members of the community like grandparents and also from other community members, force the parents to marry off their young daughters. It is also presumed that it becomes easier for a young girl to adjust to the family conditions if she is married at a young age. At times, a girl’s parents fear of not getting a suitable match if marriage is delayed.
Consequences on the individuals and impact on the society
The timing of the marriage is an important dimension of women’s reproductive behaviour with far-reaching consequences, particularly for their reproductive health. First of all, early marriage is a violation of human rights, compromising the development of girls because marriages typically culminates in childbearing at a young age, which poses great health risks for a young girl and for her infant. Young married girls generally face onerous domestic burdens, constrained decision-making and reduced life choices.
Early marriage also has implications for the well being of families, and for society as a whole. Where girls are uneducated and ill-prepared for their roles as mothers and contributors to society, there are costs to be borne at every level, from the individual, the household to the nation as a whole.
Early marriage can have serious harmful consequences for adolescents, which include:
§ Psychosocial disadvantage: The psychosocial and emotional consequences include a girl’s loss of adolescence, forced sexual relations, and the denial of freedom and personal development. It includes a girl’s loss of mobility and her confinement to the home and to household roles.
§ Denial of education and other opportunities: Once married, a girl’s education is stopped in between. Married girls who would like to continue schooling might be excluded from doing so. Although attitudes towards the education of girls have begun to change even in traditional societies, many parents still believe that investment in a girl’s education is wasted when she is simply going to be married and will have to live and work in another household.
§ Also, the girls married at a young age are likely to find motherhood to be the sole focus of their lives, at the expense of development in other areas such as formal education, training for employment, work experience and personal growth.
§ Health problems: For the vast majority of under-educated rural adolescent girls in the developing world, marriage remains the likely context for sexual intercourse and a married teenage girl may find it impossible to resist unwanted sexual advances. As a result, these result in premature pregnancies, which cause higher rates of maternal and infant mortality.
Pregnancy and childbirth: Childbirth to a woman, who is still in the growing stage, affects her health. The maternal mortality rate (MMR) in the 15-19 age group is one of the highest in India. Pregnancy-related deaths in this age group are the leading cause of mortality worldwide also. Mothers in this age group face a greater chance of dying in pregnancy than women aged 20 to 24. Apart from increased risk of maternal death, there are increased risks of premature labour and complications during delivery, resulting in low birth-weight babies and a higher chance that the newborn will not survive.
Infant and early childhood care: The health problems linked to early marriage not only affect the pregnant mother and the foetus, but also continue after childbirth. A number of studies have shown a comparatively higher infant mortality rate for children born to adolescent mothers. A large proportion of children (over 300,000) born to adolescent mothers (15-19 age) die in infancy, and further, that their survival beyond infancy is comparatively low. It has been found that infants born to adolescent mothers have a greater likelihood of being low birth-weight than the others. This is mainly associated with poor maternal nutrition, reinforcing that adolescents are unready for childbirth. A 1993 survey among women married young in Rajasthan found that 63 percent of their children under four were severely malnourished.5
§ High fertility: Early marriages resulting in early onset of child bearing is associated with high fertility. Thus, early pregnancy leads to larger families, with serious consequences on the health and well being of the mother and her children, and also the population growth of the nation.
§ Social and economic consequences: Early marriage can have profound social and economic consequences for society as a whole. These are reinforced by the fact that the children of young and illiterate mothers tend to face the same cycle of childhood deprivation and damage experienced by their mothers.
§ Teenage girls are also more susceptible than older women to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS as result of both biological factors as well as social factors. These include hormonal fluctuations and the permeability of vaginal tissue, and the power relations between women and men that make it difficult for girls and young women to negotiate safe sex. This rise in the frequency of unprotected sex is not only driven by the implication of distrust associated with contraceptives but often also by a desire to become pregnant.6
§ Violence and abandonment: Domestic violence is more common among women who had been married at young age. Women married at a younger age are more likely to be beaten or threatened by the husbands and more likely to believe that a husband might sometimes be justified in beating his wife. Early marriage is often linked to wife abandonment, divorce and separation. Violent behaviour towards a wife, including coercive sex, plays a major role in marital breakdown.
§ Impact on Mental health: Another severe consequence of early marriage is that mental health of young girls is seriously affected. In India early marriage and cultural constraints on female roles have been associated with depression.
What is being done to stop early marriages?
Society is being considered as a wall that takes decades to get reconstructed. Thus, any social norm or system could not be checked or changed overnight. It requires systematic and continuous effort. Although most countries have laws that regulate marriage, both in terms of minimum age and consent, these laws may not be applied and few prosecutions are ever brought against lawbreakers – parents, officiators or spouses. This is common where marriages typically take place according to customary rites and remain unregistered.
The Indian Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 stemmed from a campaign that helped reposition women, family life, and childbearing within modern India. However, the Act did not declare child marriages invalid. In 1978 it was strengthened to inhibit marriage of girls until the age of 18 and boys until 21.
In spite of all restrictions, teenagers are getting married in many parts of the country. Sometimes parents are unaware of the dangers, or may feel that the dangers are justified for cultural or economic reasons. Thus, the use of law as a means of regulating early marriage is in no way sufficient.
There is also a need to provide people with suitable opportunities for education and economic activities to delay marriage (beyond the age of 18 years). Even where parents and children understand the negative implications of early marriage, societal pressure to conform may be great. Traditions promoting early marriage need to be challenged. The media can play an essential role in challenging the attitudes and customs that underpin early marriage.
If married adolescent girls can be better educated about family planning methods and can be motivated to postpone the birth of the first child and properly spacing birth, both infant and maternal mortality rates can be significantly reduced.
Proper planning and focused approach toward any issue is the basic minimum requirement to get some positive as well as desired change in the system. The legal protections are not sufficient, as there exists two parts of a law. The first one is the institutional part that enables the law as an institution to give protection to the people who come to it in search of help. The other part of the law, i.e. the internal part of the law motivates people to move to law. The second part is really important and now the thrust should remain there to make it more internalized so that the people can get encouraged to move to the institutional part. As a matter of fact, this is the most important thing to do at this moment.
The implications of early marriage for HIV/AIDS policy; Population Council