43% of underage married girls suffer marital violence: Survey

When Delhi-based researcher Shruti Chaudhry visited a village in Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh to study migration, she stumbled upon two darker secrets of India's family life. Talking to women in Chabutra village, she learned that most women got married when they were 14 to 16 years old. But that was not all.

"A husband of one of the women we talked to later told us that his wife had given wrong information, which he wanted corrected. He added that he had soundly thrashed her for this," said a troubled Shruti.

Adolescent marriage and domestic violence are two widely prevalent but unacknowledged practices. Recent studies on the married life of adolescent girls reveal a chilling link between the two. Anita Raj of Boston University School of Public Health, involved in several such studies said that adolescent marriage appears to be directly correlated with increased violence at home: emotional, physical and sexual, practiced both by the husband and the in-laws. It is unabated even during pregnancy and motherhood. And, most sobering of all, female children born to under-age mothers suffer from higher risks of dying before they reach their fifth birthday.

Raj led a study, published in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics, of over 10,000 married women aged 20 to 24 years which showed that 43% of under-age married women said they had been subject to marital violence, while 24% of adult-married women reported such events. Severe, life-threatening violence was experienced by 16% of under-age married women compared to 6% of adult married women.

In another study of young mothers from a low-income locality in Mumbai, Raj found that physical and non-physical abuse by husbands and in-laws continued during pregnancy and while nursing new-borns.

"I get up at 3 or 4 a.m. to get water. After that, I make breakfast and prepare a lunch box for my father-in-law and sister-in-law. I make a separate lunch for my mother-in-law, wash clothes and clean the house. I had to do my work whether I was pregnant or not. No one helped me," said a 16-year-old mother quoted in Raj's study. The study documents hair-raising accounts of denial of food and healthcare, beatings, forced drudgery, by the marital household. It showed that violence by other family members was more likely when husbands were violent towards the wife.

A study by Jay Silverman of Harvard School of Public Health, Anita Raj and others has shown that under-age marriage led to higher infant and child mortality rates of daughters and not sons compared to women who were married in adulthood.

Another study of married women in five Indian states by Delhi's Population Council and Mumbai's International Institute of Population Studies showed that under-age married women got less autonomy and were less likely to express opinions on domestic issues. Importantly, under-age mothers were significantly less likely to have had their first delivery in a health facility.

Although the proportion of girls married off in the 15 to 19 year age group has declined from 56% in 1971 to about 27% in 2006, it still means that over 1.5 crore girls are thus married. And, 16% of the age group, that is about 2.4 lakh women had already become mothers or were pregnant, according to the National Family & Health Survey-3.

Raj says that these issues are compromising the health and development of the country as a whole. But she is optimistic. "Fortunately recent movements in public health in the country have recognized these issues as needing to be addressed," she says.

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