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March 17, 2023 12:15 am | Updated 01:09 am IST


In February, when the Assam government launched a massive crackdown on child marriage, social activists pointed out that the root of the problem, i.e., limited access to education among women, is not being sufficiently addressed. National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data show that higher education levels could play a greater role than wealth in delaying a woman’s marriage. For example, the median marriage age of a woman who has completed over 11 years of schooling is 23 compared to 17.6 for a woman with less than five years of schooling. The data also reflect wide variations between the marital age of rural and urban women, and Dalit and upper-caste women. In a conversation moderated by Sonikka Loganathan, Mary E. John and Rajni Palriwala discuss whether educated women are likely to marry later. Excerpts:

Does education or wealth play a greater role in determining when a woman gets married?

Mary E. John: Education has a longer history of being significant. I use the word “significant” and not “determining,” which is too strong a word. Depending on (NFHS) data, you could say that over time, while education has had a steady influence, poverty has had an increasing influence. However, we should use data as clues, not as facts. But yes, over time, wealthier people are no longer marrying their daughters early; it no longer works for their marriage market. But among the very poor, this practice continues to a much greater degree.

Rajni Palriwala: Poverty is the greatest determinant of early marriage. The poor do not want to wait as there will be more demand for dowry then. Among the wealthy, the age of marriage may increase up to a certain point and then plateau, as the rich too have a greater need to exert control over their young, even more so than the poor.

Why do you say that the rich too have a greater need to exert control over their young?

Rajni Palriwala: For the wealthy, their perceptions of self, status and place within the community are more important. They feel that if they are powerful and wealthy and cannot even control the young, how will they do anything else? If daughters make a ‘wrong’ marriage, their place in the community gets questioned. And the marriage of the child affects the marriage of the next generation too.

Mary E. John: They wish to shape the marriage choices of their children to maintain control over land, assets, family lineage. Among some economically better off castes, early marriage may still be prevalent. For example, among the Gujjars, you can find a woman betrothed before she completes her education and then continues her education after marriage.

What role does marriage play in Indian society?

Mary E. John: It is the most significant institution. For daughters, their family’s responsibility is realised with their marriage. When it comes to sons, the responsibility is to settle them in a job, which in turn will also hopefully lead to a marriage.

Marriage is a woman’s primary economic security. This is made up of many layers of payments, like dowry, and what each family will bring to the marriage. Two, social identity. A woman who remains single continues to be an anomaly, because we have near-universal marriage. Three, sexual respectability. Those who wish to be have social respect have sexual relationships within marriage. Four, the option to have children. A woman may decide at some point in life that she wants to have a child without having a husband. In the Indian context, this is completely unacceptable.

Rajni Palriwala: Most marriages are endogamous. This is central to maintaining caste and community lines and hierarchy. In terms of gender dimensions, marriage, by and large, means that the woman lives with her husband’s family or is seen as becoming a member of her husband’s family. Marriage is necessary to maintain that gender contract. If the sons are the future of the family, the clan and the community, the parents want a say in who the daughter-in-law will be.

What are some advantages that families see in getting women married earlier instead of educating them further?

Rajni Palriwala: To maintain caste and community [lines], the match has to be carefully monitored. It has to take place at a time when the young are not only emotionally attached to the parents, but also dependent on them and hence obedient. The marriage market is deeply segmented by caste, wealth, urban, rural, and gender. Girls don’t grow up outside the ideas of that segmentation, they go along with what they have learned. Dowry also remains central. The wealthy can give dowry, but they don’t want to have to give too much dowry. The more educated a girl, the more the boy has to be educated too and the higher the dowry. Also, there’s the responsibility of protecting her sexually before marriage. And that responsibility gets transferred to the boy’s family. After marriage, the girl goes to live with her husband’s family, so why spend on her education?

Women are increasingly getting access to education. Does this result in more empowerment? Do they have more of a choice to work rather than get married?

Mary E. John: We have a very peculiar pattern of employment for women. The female labour force participation rate is 25%. You have small pockets of better-off women who find careers. Otherwise, we’re seeing job losses in which women are the biggest losers. If you have low and declining employment rates, you are going to see a greater burden on marriage as a means of economic security. There has been an expansion in access to education; we now have near gender parity in our colleges. But does it translate to greater access to jobs? No. We are looking at a very high proportion of educated but unemployed women. Those who do enter, say, the corporate sector often leave because these workplaces are hostile. Or they’re unable to combine domestic expectations with the demands of the workplace.

Rajni Palriwala: There is very little change in the conjugal contract and there is very little autonomy for girls and women. Even the most educated woman finds that the entire domestic burden falls on her, and the man is still assumed to have the power to determine how the family should be. So, the question is whether increasing age of marriage enables women to change that conjugal contract. Do they have autonomy then?

Mary E. John: It’s a narrow focus when we go on about underage marriage as the most harmful thing that is happening. If we were to assume that a higher age of marriage would automatically lead to more empowerment, more autonomy, more freedom, we are making a mistake.

What are the reasons for a family supporting a woman to get education and get a job rather than getting married? What are the perceived advantages of that?

Rajni Palriwala: There are families whose daughters get into small jobs. They are earning, maybe their own dowry, so they delay the marriage, or they are helping in the education of the siblings. But beyond a point, it becomes counterproductive, because they have to add that much more dowry. And there’s also a very strong idea among most communities that parents should not live off their daughter’s income. Marriage is marrying up, and when you marry up, the up-ness of the people your daughter marries reflects on you. It may be in terms of wealth, which means more dowry. Generally boys with a professional job and good education will want a wife who earns. That also becomes a reason to delay the daughter’s marriage. They think the daughter will have a better marriage then — everyone has the hope that an educated person will be treated better. They don’t realise that domestic violence is very high among the educated and the middle class.

Women in Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe/Other Backward Classes get married when they are far younger than even those in rural India. Why is this the case?

Rajni Palriwala: When we talk of Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs, there is quite a fair deal of correlation between caste and poverty. They lack decent work, and are vulnerable to violence from those higher in the hierarchy. All of these factors mean that girls are even more vulnerable. Dalit girls, in particular, are more vulnerable to sexual predators as young upper-caste men feel that they have a right of access. Marriage is a sort of protection for these girls.

Mary E. John: This is where I come back to the concern that we should think of (NFHS) data as only clues. When we analyse economic status, educational status, caste identity, community identity, rural-urban location, we are trying to separate different factors that constitute who we are. We are a combination of all of these, and these factors interact with each other. Disadvantage, in social and economic terms, comes together when we talk about SCs, STs and OBCs. Families who belong to these groups experience the sense of being socially disadvantaged in the marriage market. But quite simply, they are also poor. The lower wealth quintiles are disproportionately populated by SC, ST and OBCs. So, a combination of social disadvantage and economic disadvantage will give you the result that you see.

Mary E John is former Professor, Centre for Women’s Development Studies, and author of Child Marriage in an International Frame: A Feminist Review from India ; Rajni Palriwala is former Professor of Sociology, University of Delhi


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