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Early Marriage, Adolescent Pregnancies, and Patriarchy in India


By Jagriti Gangopadhyay

The Data

In a recent event of Poshan Abhiyan (November 26, 2019), being held at New Delhi, Smriti Irani, Union Minister of Women and Child Development, expressed concern over teenage pregnancies in India. The latest data from National Family and Household Survey round 4 (2016) revealed that 27% of girls in India are married before they turn 18 and 31% of married Indian women have their first deliveries by the age of 18 years. In fact another recent study published in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, analyzed the relations between teenage pregnancies and undernourishment of children. The study found that children born to adolescent mothers were born with 10% points higher stunting and underweight prevalence as compared to children born to adult mothers. Additionally, the authors of the study suggest that as teenage mothers are underweight, anemic, have lesser access to education and sanitation, hence there is a direct link between adolescent mothers and stunted children. Additionally, as per WHO guidelines, maternal mortality for mother aged between 15-19 years is twice higher as compared to mothers aged between 20-24.

Though the Government of India, is considering to make amendments to the Child Marriage and Prevention Act, cognizance also has to be taken regarding access and opportunities of women from deprived socio-economic backgrounds across the country.

Amartya Sen and the Capability Approach

Amartya Sen is his seminal work: “Development as Freedom” (1999), had elaborated upon the capability approach and linked it with intra household equality. Specifically, Sen (1999), through the capability approach had suggested that every individual is born with their own set of capabilities. The conversion of capabilities into valuable functioning depends upon their access to resources and opportunities. For instance, in a household in India, due to the prevalence of son preference, the allocation of food is higher for the male child as opposed to the female child. Similarly, within the family, male children are given more opportunities for education and employment, while female children are mostly coerced into marriage. Thus, as Sen argues, that due to the unequal access to resources and opportunities which begins from the family, the full potential of Indian women are not realized.

Teenage Pregnancies in other South Asian countries

Global data shows that teenage pregnancies are a concern for almost all South Asian countries. The Table below demonstrates data from the World Bank (2017), highlighting the adolescent fertility rates of all the South Asian Countries.

Country Adolescent Fertility Rate (births per 1,000 women ages 15-19)
Afghanistan 68.9%
Bangladesh 82.96%
Bhutan 20.1%
Maldives 7.8%
Nepal 65%
Pakistan 38.8%
Sri Lanka 20.9%

The adolescent fertility rates across South Asia suggest that women have very little choice or control with regard to their bodies. As girls continue to be a liability, marriage seems to be the most viable economic option for parents and as a result most of these girls are coerced into child marriages.

Policy Recommendations

Though Smriti Irani’s stance to make alterations in the Child Marriage and Prevention Act is a step in the right direction, however to prevent child marriages and adolescent pregnancies, it is important to take note of cultural beliefs and practices of those promulgating their teenage daughters into marriage. Findings from the Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER), 2017 suggest that by the age of 18 when the Government does not mandate education, 32% girls as compared to 28% boys are not enrolled in schools. The ASER survey also reveals that the major reason for girls dropping out from schools is family constraints. Thus a change in the law will not necessary prevent child marriage or adolescent pregnancies or enrollment of girls into schools. In particular, a revised Act might not necessarily generate the desired result, as the root cause of these social evils against women is patriarchy. Hence, the focus should be to change the mindset of the parents. The Government of India has to generate various forms of awareness programs to eliminate child marriages in India. Leaders from the local communities have to be involved and made a part of these awareness programs who in turn will educate the parents regarding child stunting, maternal mortality rates and the risks associated with child marriage and adolescent pregnancies. Finally, parents should be made to understand that girls with proper education can participate equally in the labor force and become independent beings. Thus going back to Sen’s (1999), argument on access, unless sons and daughters both receive equal access and opportunities within the household, patriarchal structures will continue adolescent girls into marriage. With constant debates around equal pay, inclusive work environment for women, rise of single mothers, the Government of India should pay serious attention to adolescent pregnancy rates in India.

Jagriti Gangopadhyay
, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Manipal Center for Humanities, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), India.


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