Religion Shouldn’t Decide Marriages

Mariam Karim Ahlawat

Apr 23, 2015, 12:24 PM | Updated Feb 11, 2016, 09:12 AM IST

Rely on science, instead. Leaders must educate society rather than scurry to make a new law to address child marriage and all the problems it creates.

I had said in an earlier article that religious heads, in my opinion, ought not be considered representatives of an entire community. I also said in my previous piece published in Swarajya (print version) that we need to adopt a scientific temper when discussing social issues. Marriageable age actually has nothing to do with religion or rather shouldn’t have anything to do with religion. It is mainly a health and mortality related concern.

There is some buzz around a recent verdict by the Madras High Court that normal civil law, rather than the Shariah, would apply in cases of child marriage in Muslims. We have to shift our focus away from religion, on economic and nutritional status.

In our very patriarchal society (in Muslims and Hindus and Christians) we suppose that the heads of communities, who are mostly men, have the right to decide for all the women of that community. Even the media is not intelligent and rational enough to offer insightful and meaningful discussions on such matters. Academic insights and researches remain in library tomes.

Marriage for both boys and girls being legal at 18, and girls married at 16 being acceptable, the debate seems to be focused on financial stability (for boys), emotional maturity and ability to handle the stresses of a social commitment like marriage.

Furthermore, we talk about religion and law but are completely muddled about which social and economic class is being talked about — and most of the TV discussions, with an eye on TRP ratings, have focused on the opinions of models, theater activists, impresarios etc. Has someone asked a paediatrician? Has anyone looked into the UN reports on the health of young mothers and their children? According to the Union Health Ministry’s Family Welfare Statistics 2011, 48 per cent of women — not Muslim women alone, mind you — aged 20-24 were married or are in union before 18 years, and almost one in five were married or are in union before 15 years. While rates of child marriage are declining, the pace of change is slow and, in some states, prevalence rates remain over 60 per cent of those who are married before the legal age of 18.

We can safely conclude: the law is not being upheld.

Further relaxing of this age legally seems to be a caving-in of progressive thought to the pressures of the patriarchal system — of a society ridden with violence against women. Here, early marriage is one way to ensure that a girl is protected from unwanted male attention and placed firmly under the control of the husband’s family and so that the children she bears are legitimate!

First let us take the physical and psychological development of a human being aged 18: here is the Indian policy statement on paediatric care:

Policy on Age of Children for Paediatric Care (1999)

For fulfilling the professional obligations of paediatricians to the society at large, the purview of paediatrics commences with the foetus and continues through newborn, infancy,preschool and school age including adolescence up to and including 18 years of age. In the United States of America, Paediatrics covers up to 21 years of age. Thus, we could have defined the age as below 18, or up to 21 or till the last year of the teens (nineteen).

It is worth contemplating that a person virtually within paediatric care age may not be ready physically (not just psychologically or socially) to take on marriage and, inevitably, in India, childbearing and child-rearing. The load of the latter falls mainly on women. We need to understand that the problems related to early marriage has ill effects not only on individuals but on communities and, therefore, on the nation as a whole.

Early marriage means loss of adolescence; it has a special bearing on women. Considering the patriarchal norms prevailing in India, it would mean curtailment of personal freedom, education, development of skills and other empowering opportunities including financial independence. It is also a denial of psycho social and emotional well being. Such losses in half the population of a country can only mean loss for the country in terms of the health and development of human capital.

We must look at the following findings (about the whole country, not specific to any community) and judge for ourselves:

– According to a recent UN survey, India accounted for the maximum number of maternal deaths in the world — 17 per cent or nearly 50,000 of the 2.89 lakh women who died as a result of complications due to pregnancy or childbearing in 2013. Statistics show that India’s Maternal Mortality Rate is the highest in south Asia. Most of the women who die in childbirth are under the age of 20. Complications during childbirth are much more common among young mothers.

– Infant mortality is 55 per cent higher among children born to mothers under age 20, than among children born to mothers age 20-29.

– Adolescent childbearing may have adverse effects for the mother and the infant due to biological immaturity and poor nutritional status.

A UNICEF survey found that

– The health problems linked to early marriage not only affect the pregnant mother and the foetus, but also continue after childbirth.

– Evidence shows that infant mortality among the children of very young mothers is higher — sometimes two times higher — than among those of older peers. The Infant mortality rate in India is 34. 61 on every thousand live births.

– A stronger likelihood of low birth-weight in the infant has been recorded among adolescent mothers. This is mainly associated with poor maternal nutrition, reinforcing the point that adolescents are ‘unready’ for childbirth.

– Low birth-weight babies are 5-30 times more likely to die than babies of normal weight.

– If a mother is under 18, her baby’s chance of dying in the first year of life is 60 per cent higher than that of a baby born to a mother older than 19.

– As per the latest figures, in Rajasthan, 40 per cent of child-birth are by women under the age of 21, and 25 per cent by women under 18. The immaturity and lack of education of a young mother undermines her capacity to nurture her child. The Forum for Learning and Action with Innovation and Rigour estimates that most children under five in economically backward sections have compromised brain development due to malnutrition.

Why then are we focusing on religion? To shift responsibility? To create more divides? This isn’t the way to solve the actual problems of Indian women.

Further, to say that marriage will not entail children would be naïve and unrealistic. Good reproductive/sexual health is a very important aspect of quality life. These effects and issues faced by women in no way implies that men will not face the same. Whole families, communities, an entire society is detrimentally affected by these issues. This cuts across religious divides.

We need to educate the common man and woman and the media: it’s not a religious matter. This change in methodology could make a difference.

Now, if communities aren’t going to look to their religious leadership, who or what do they have as an alternative? The State? It’s a self serving, power hungry, quarrelsome, callous entity that abandons individuals to their fate. It is the country’s leadership always — of the past, present or future — that needs to take up these issues at the grassroots, not fritter away precious time and funds on meaningless talking points causing divides among the sexes, among religions, among castes, etc. It is as though we are war spoils! The state makes and unmakes laws without so much as asking us what we might require or desire. Therefore, a new law to address the issue is no solution either.

Human development is what we have to look at and all other issues will fall in place. Let us focus our attention on the Indians’ overall well-being first.

Mariam Kariam Ahlawat is a novelist. playwright and writer of literature for children

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