The Assam government is cracking down on child marriage and has registered over 4,000 cases just this year alone. While some people have supported this approach, social activists point out that the root of the problem — limited access to education among women — is still not being addressed.
Data from NFHS-5 show that the more educated a woman is, the higher her negotiating power about when she wants to get married. Interestingly, this is not a recent phenomenon. Data suggest that for decades now, better-educated women have had more of a say on when they should get married.
Table 1 shows the median age of women when they first got married by current age, across various wealth quintiles, and years of school education completed, in 2019-21. In the survey, women who completed over 11 years of schooling (row K) and were currently aged 25-29 (column I) and 45-49 (column V) were asked their age when they were first married. The median marriage age in the 25-29 age-group was 23 and in the 45-49 age-group was 22.5. The negligible difference (columns I-V) shows that education has long been a controlling factor in deciding a woman’s marital age.
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However, the same is not true when it comes to the wealth of a household. Women who belonged to the richest 20% of households (row E) and were currently aged 25-29 (column I) and 45-49 (column V), were asked their age when they were first married. The median age at first marriage in the 25-29 age group was 22.8 and in the 45-49 age-group was 19.7. The difference (columns I-V) shows that wealth has only recently gained relevance as a controlling factor in deciding a woman’s marital age. Among older generations, even wealthier families married women at a younger age.
Though wealth has recently gained relevance, education continues to be the dominant controlling factor of the two. The median marriage age of women from the wealthiest households was still lower than that of women who completed over 11 years of schooling (E-K). Also, the median marriage age of women from the poorest households was still higher than that of women who have had no schooling (A-F).
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Caste and location also play a major role ( Table 2). Women from SC (row A), ST (row B), OBC (row C) and other (row D) communities and currently aged 25-29 (column I) and 45-49 (column V) were asked their age when they were first married. The median marriage age among SC/ST/OBC women was below 20 even among younger generations, while that of non-SC/ST/OBC women crossed 20. Women from urban (row F) and rural (row G) areas and currently aged 25-29 (column I) and 45-49 (column V) were asked their age when they were first married. The difference (row F-G) in the median age between rural and urban women was wider among younger generations. So, the negotiating power of urban women has improved at a higher pace than that of rural women.
A similar analysis for men ( Tables 3 and 4) shows that education was not as dominant a factor in pushing up their median marriage age as it was in the case of women. Also, the median age of marriage among men was above the legal age of 21 across all background characteristics, whereas the median marriage age was below 18 among women across categories.
There were other interesting patterns among men. In recent times, men belonging to poorer households and with fewer years of schooling have been marrying at an earlier age than before.
Figures in rows A-K in tables 1 and 3 and rows A-G in tables 2 and 4 depict the median age of first marriage across categories.
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Source: National Family Health Survey 5 (2019-2021)
Also read: The battle against child marriage
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