India’s new bill to raise the marriageable age for women to 21 years may squeeze the country’s fertility rate, just as a national survey reveals the number of births has already dropped below replacement levels.
The objective of the bill is to bring about gender parity, rather than reduce India’s population, now standing at 1.4 billion. However, it follows the country’s Fifth National Family Health Survey, released on 24 November, which shows that India’s fertility rate – the average number of children that would be born to a woman over her lifetime – has declined to 2.0 this year.
It means that, for the first time, fertility in the country is below the replacement rate of 2.1— the level at which a couple is replaced by their offspring, taking into account the risk of death, according to the UN.
“I would like to present that women’s equality in our country needs to be seen in the age of marriage,” said Smriti Irani, India’s minister for Women and Children Development, introducing the bill in Parliament on 21 December.
“This amendment gives equality to men and women by allowing both to marry at 21.”
Raising women’s marrying age would help lower maternal and infant mortality rates, improve the number of female births for every 1,000 male births, and reduce the incidence of teenage pregnancies, stillbirths and miscarriages, the bill says.
However, it does not mention the potential effect that the legislation may have on fertility and reducing India’s population, the second biggest in the world after China.
Mira Shiva, a founder member of the People’s Health Movement, a global health network, said: “Several studies have shown that deferment of marriage and childbearing is a sure way to reduce the fertility rate and bring down population numbers, though that may not be the intention of the present bill.”
Shahabuddin Yaqoob Quraishi, a former Indian civil servant and author of The Population Myth, a book dealing with politically motivated ideas of religion and population growth, said: “The decline in fertility rate to below replacement rate is certainly an achievement, though the original target year was 2010.”
India has been trying to curb population growth for decades, and state governments have been given free rein to set up their own fertility reduction programmes, including contraception and focusing on birth spacing, the time between each birth, with the central government providing the bulk of the funding for actual implementation.
Several major Indian states have passed laws aimed at restricting family size to two children. In July this year, India’s largest state of Uttar Pradesh, with 241 million people, tabled a bill in the assembly to make those with more than two children ineligible for government employment, following the example of Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Some states also ban those who violate the two-child norm from contesting local elections.
Fertility reduction, through contraception, has been a policy objective since the 1950s. However, forced sterilisations were resorted to during the 1975—1977 national emergency, a period of political unrest.
In 2000, a National Population Policy set a goal of reducing the total fertility rate to replacement level by 2010 and achieving a stable population by 2045 “at a level consistent with the requirements of sustainable economic growth, social development, and environmental protection”.
Quraishi said it was commendable that the sex ratio at birth had risen to 1,020 girls for every 1,000 boys — given the widespread practice of sex selection and female foeticides in India. “It is almost unbelievable that this ratio has been achieved and I do hope that they got the figures right,” he said.
Quraishi, however, said raising the legal age to 21 for women to marry will likely “end up criminalising many more young people”.
A statement released by the Population Foundation of India, a non-profit, said: “Increasing the legal age at marriage would perhaps accomplish little more than pushing more marriages underground as has been the practice in the past.”
According to Shiva the bill ignores the fact that for most women in India marriages and childbirth occur in the 18—21 age bracket. She points to the Fourth National Family Healthy Survey which showed that 27 per cent of Indian women in the 20—24 age group were married before the legal age of 18.
Shiva said the government would need to provide incentives to encourage girls to complete their education and find jobs if the stated objectives of the bill are to be realised.
“As things stand, the prospects for girls extending their education and finding decent employment are dim — most working women in India are employed in the informal sector, where conditions are exploitative,” she said.
According to projections in the UN’s World Population Prospects – 2019, India’s population may surpass China’s by 2027 due to ‘population momentum’, a phenomenon caused by a high proportion of people in a population being in the reproductive age group.
In May, China announced it will allow couples to have three children, after census data showed a steep decline in birth rates and an ageing population.
With India’s total fertility rates steadily declining, as seen in the Fourth and Fifth National Family Health Surveys, the UN projections may need to be revised, says Shiva.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.