BHUBANESWAR: Even as child marriage among girls has dropped in Odisha due to interventions by administration and intensified awareness campaigns by social organisations, it has, ironically, increased among boys in the last few years.
The recent National Family Health Survey 5 (NFHS 5) revealed 13.3 per cent (pc) men aged 25-29 years had married before they attained the age of 21 years as compared to 11 per cent in 2015-16.
It, however, dropped to 20.5 per cent from 21.3 per cent during the last five years among women aged 25 to 29 years, who had married before 18 years. The maximum 21.7 per cent women and 14.8 per cent men in rural Odisha got married before attaining the legal marriage age.
Several measures to stop child marriage notwithstanding, Odisha continued to remain among bottom-five states in terms of low mean marriage age. The adolescent fertility rate for women of 15-19 years has also dropped from 46 in 2015-16 to 40 in 2019-21
What is more alarming is that 7.6 per cent women aged 15-19 years were already mothers or pregnant during the NFHS survey conducted in the first quarter of 2021. There is no change in the status of women below 19 years either getting pregnant or attaining motherhood as it was 7.6 per cent in 2015-16.
As the Union Cabinet has cleared a proposal to raise the minimum marriage age for women from 18 to 21, some of the states, including Odisha will be faced with a daunting task of altering the social and cultural behaviour of people which can’t be achieved overnight.
An analysis by SBI's research wing indicated, the mean marriage age in Odisha is 22.1 years, higher than that of the country’s average mean marriage age. Around 37 per cent women got married in the State before the age of 21 years.
Odisha is fourth among large states in terms of highest number of women below 18 years of age at marriage. Social activists working for making the State child marriage free believed any increase in marriage age will be notional in nature unless there is a change in mindset of people regarding female education and marriage.
The State government recently claimed to have averted over 4,300 child marriages in the past five years while as many as 12,000 villages have become child marriage free. Earlier, the Odisha State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (OSCPCR) had opposed the move to raise the legal age for marriage of girls to 21 saying it would not be effective in preventing child marriages.
At the same time, it could create unwed mothers as another Act permits consensual sex after 18, they said.