The marriage age misconception -Mary E John
Addressing poverty is the key to improving the health and nutritional status of mothers and their infants
From the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day, the Prime Minister declared that the government is considering raising the legal age of marriage for girls, which is currently 18 years. He said, “We have formed a committee to ensure that daughters are no longer suffering from malnutrition and they are married off at the right age. As soon as the report is submitted, appropriate decisions will be taken about the age of marriage of daughters.” The Committee in question is the task force set up on June 4, announced earlier by the Finance Minister in her Budget Speech. It is widely understood (but not officially stated) that the task force is meant to produce a rationale for raising the minimum age of marriage for women to 21, thus bringing it on a par with that for men. Since there is no obvious constituency that has been demanding such a change, the government seems to be motivated by the belief that simply raising the age of marriage is the best way to improve the health and nutritional status of mothers and their infants. Because it flies in the face of the available evidence, we need to ask where this belief is coming from.
One plausible source could be those who advocate for population control and who are influential and whose research is well-funded. Consider, for example, an article published in the prestigious journal The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, by Nyugen, Scott, Neupane, Tran and Menon, on May 15, 2019. It was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This article analyses data on stunting in children and thinness in mothers (as measures of under-nourishment) in the latest round of the National Family Health Survey 4 (2015-16). The paper uses rigorous methods to chase a flawed hypothesis. The authors examine the strength of the association between many different causal factors (the mother’s age at childbearing, her educational level, living conditions, health conditions, decision-making power, and so on) and the health status of mother and child. As it turns out, the poverty of the mother plays the greatest role of all by far — both in relation to her undernourishment and that of her child, but this is not acknowledged. The authors only concede that their cross-sectional design (using data from a single time period) “reduces causal inference. For example, becoming pregnant early might lead to reduced education or wealth; however, a woman from a poor background and lower education might be more likely to become pregnant early.” In other words, instead of early pregnancy causing malnourishment, they may both be the consequences of poverty.
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The Hindu, 21 August, 2020, https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-marriage-age-misconception/article32406793.ece?homepage=true