Editorial: Too early still
It should come as no great surprise that West Bengal leads the country in the number of girls marrying younger. The 2019 statistics of the Sample Registration System from the office of the Registrar General indicates that the average age of marriage of girls in Bengal is 21, while the countrywide average is 22.1. The National Family Health Survey of 2015-16 had shown that Bengal had the largest number of minor marriages in the country, with more than 25 per cent of girls getting married between 15 and 18. This has to be placed against the improvement in this sphere shown by Bihar, Jharkhand and Rajasthan, which had more child brides in the previous decade. Although the Sample Registration System recorded young brides and not child brides, it is not surprising — with this background — that Bengal houses some of the youngest brides in the country. Forty-five out of 100 girls get married before they reach 21, 3.7 per cent of them before they reach 18. Not surprising perhaps, but certainly disappointing. Government schemes of support for teenage girls to complete high school and for parents below a certain income bracket to help in their adult daughter’s wedding were supposed to have reduced the tendency to get girls married off quickly. That may still be true, but the problem is too wide and its causes too varied for it to be resolved at one go.
A government’s active encouragement in schooling is important not just on a practical level but also in creating pressure at home to change attitudes. This must be accompanied by a robust school system and — far more difficult — the scope for earning in the future. A life of options can counter the apparent advantages of early marriage — something that the parents need to appreciate. What needs emphasis are lessons in health. School is the best place to learn about the grave dangers of early motherhood not only to a young girl but also to her children, and therefore to the whole of society. If boys and girls are led to understand the need for education and good health, some headway would have been made. The methods of change should be studied, planned and followed through with persistence for West Bengal to improve its record of youthful brides.