Should women’s legal age for marriage be raised? The answer to this seemingly simple question is not so simple, because the question is not simply about replacing age 18 with 21. Rather, it deals with the social origins of a “problem” not easily amenable for policy pruning, however progressive its intent might be.
Marriage at a low age is the outcome of a complex web of factors. To begin with, the socio-economic groups and regions where under-age marriages are prevalent are marked by a near absence of quality schooling and opportunities for higher education, fortified by poverty and limited economic opportunities.
An offshoot of the question posed at the beginning arises here. Why should, if at all, women’s legal age at marriage be increased from 18 to 21, when 18 is considered the marriageable age in many countries? Stated differently, what are the compelling grounds for increasing women’s age at marriage? One purported reason is to do away with the gender gap in the legal age at marriage, and the underlying social norm which expects women to be younger than men at the time of marriage. Another related reason is that marriage at a younger age before attaining physical, cognitive and emotional maturity leads to a suboptimal transition to adulthood.
Evidence suggests that transition from adolescence to adulthood is likely to be optimal for those who study longer years, have better nutrition and delayed marriage and parenthood. However, increasing age at marriage alone will not ensure that girls will study longer or attain better nutrition either. The nutritional needs are high at late adolescence (15-19 years) and a fair measure of adolescent girls suffer from multiple forms of undernutrition, from chronic energy deficiency, iron deficiency to micronutrient deficiency. Marriage, pregnancy and delivery during adolescence not only drain their already poor nutritional reserves, but also lead to child stunting and mortality to multiple diseases at a later stage.
What can possibly address this? Delayed marriage or nutritional enhancement? Delayed marriage without improving nutrition will most likely yield the same adverse outcomes, in addition to creating new and serious problems. The proposed move to raise the marriageable age, thus, becomes a case of “punitive paternalism” — using punitive measures to achieve a progressive but difficult or elusive social goal.
Can the objective of the policy proposal be achieved through an alternative, incentivising approach? Herein, the concept of “autonomy-enhancing paternalism” proposed by behavioural economists Martin Binder and Leonhard Lades, assumes salience. Autonomy-enhancing policy intervention promotes self-empowerment and aims to free individuals from irrelevant influences. It aims to improve well-being through improving the process of decision-making.
In this case, incentivising and enabling girls to continue schooling up to Class 12 and helping to enhance their nutrition can stop under-age marriages. Evidence suggests that ensuring secondary level schooling among girls is likely to enhance their autonomy and improve their health and nutrition. Also, secondary schooling of women is associated with improved cognitive abilities, mental, sexual and reproductive health. Additionally, it leads to a significant decline in teenage child-bearing, child-stunting, among others. These are important instrumental reasons to increase women’s schooling. Yet, there are substantive intrinsic reasons to promoting education since it is a valid end in itself. Enhancing the nutrition of adolescent girls is also important for a range of instrumental and intrinsic reasons.
Is there a need for a separate policy increasing women’s schooling up to 12 years and improving their nutrition? Existing policies can help achieve these twin important goals. What is needed is the commitment and the missionary zeal, as shown in Swachh Bharat, and an incentivising approach to make the policies work effectively. Janani Suraksha Yojana is a case of an incentive-based approach working well. A variety of incentivising schemes, from cycles in Bihar to laptops in Tamil Nadu, already exist towards ensuring girls’ education..
The proposed policy, instead of addressing the causes and consequences of under-age marriages, may instead produce adverse, suboptimal outcomes affecting the poor and marginalised the most. What is needed is an enabling, incentivising and innovative approach to implement the existing policies effectively.