Research around the globe is helping us better understand why some girls marry very young, while others wait to marry—and often enjoy greater education, income and freedom in the process. A few months ago, one of AJWS’s partners* in India sent me their contributions to this growing field of research: a report on the factors that influence women’s age at marriage and make adolescent girls more vulnerable to early marriage in Telengana, a state in Southern India.
Their study gathered data from 716 households across 7 districts in Telengana. These respondents are living with both intense poverty and high rates of early marriage. Over half the participating households earned just $800-1600 per year, and the mean age at marriage for girls was between 15 and 16 years old.
Here’s my take on the top five most intriguing findings from the study:
1. Laws against child marriage don’t necessarily prevent people from marrying girls off early.
In reality, many people don’t even know the basic details of laws against child marriage. I was surprised that only 38 percent of the respondents could identify the correct minimum legal ages for marriage in India (18 for females, 21 for males). The higher the respondents’ education or income, the greater was their awareness of the law.
Not surprisingly, those who were aware of the legal marriage ages also had a higher age at marriage among girls in their households—but this might also be linked to their higher income and education, not necessarily their legal knowledge.
2. Social perceptions that idealize marriage in early adulthood don’t stop families from arranging early marriages, either.
Importantly, the study also examined people’s perception of the ideal age at marriage. About 88 percent of parents reported that they thought 18 and above would be the ideal age of marriage for a girl—and this group included parents who had, in fact, arranged their daughters’ marriages at very early ages, well before the girls turned 18.
So why would families marry their daughters early, even though they don’t perceive this to be the best timing for the girls? The study’s authors noted that informal discussion with families revealed another crucial factor in their decisions: “the fact that a family’s social status is directly linked with their daughters’ purity and chastity.” The families’ concern about controlling their daughters’ sexuality and preserving their family honor ultimately outweighed their desire to delay her marriage to a more ideal, adult age.
3. Being part of a joint family can make girls from resource-poor households vulnerable to very early marriages.
Respondents living in joint families—where more than one generation lives in a single household—reported arranging their daughters’ marriages very early, compared to respondents living only with their nuclear family. Over a third of those in joint families married their daughters between the ages of 10 and 14.
Why might living in joint families contribute to this trend? Low-income joint families often struggle with constrained space and resources, especially when a son in the household marries and brings a new wife home. Some respondents were particularly concerned that, given the small size of their home, the younger, unmarried daughters might overhear the sexual activity of the new couple. To prevent that possibility, families often decide to move younger girls out of the household—through marriage—before or soon after they marry their sons.
4. Living in a female-headed household may help girls delay marriage.
The data in this study indicates that male-headed households arranged daughters’ marriages at a slightly younger age than female-headed households did. (It’s worth noting that men were the heads of most of the households in the study.)
Girls’ age at marriage was also higher when decisions were made by the mother or by the mother and father together, compared to when the father decided on his own. It seems that girls’ mothers can potentially serve as important allies in preventing early marriage of their daughters.
5. Puberty is a turning point in girls’ lives.
The study identified three common life trajectories for females in the sample and their correlation to age at marriage. One possible trajectory was entering puberty, and soon thereafter getting married. A second was entering puberty, dropping out of school, getting paid work, then getting married. And the third was entering puberty, continuing school, then getting married.
Puberty marked a major turning point for all the women and girls in the study, and their decisions at puberty shaped their lives. Those in the third sequence—who stayed in school longer—had a higher age at marriage. In contrast, those who left school and worked—in low-paid, informal jobs—didn’t necessarily delay marriage. Whether the girls continued in school or not strongly depended on the local availability of secondary schools and government scholarship programs.
Notably, all three life trajectories ended in marriage, regardless of whether the girls and young women wanted it. As the authors put it, “This study clearly reveals that marriage is a non-negotiable last stage in the life cycle of young women in reproductive age.”
In my view, this is perhaps the most troubling aspect of global discussions about early and child marriage today: the inordinate focus on age and delaying age at marriage, rather than girls’ agency and consent. It makes me wonder, are we missing the forest for the trees? Decisions about marriage still do not lie with girls themselves, and addressing this challenge may be the next frontier in the struggle for the rights of women and girls.
*This research study, authored by Kalpana Kannabiran, Sujit Kumar Mishra and S. Surapa Raju, was a collaboration between Asmita Resource Centre for Women and Centre for Social Development, Hyderabad. The study was carried out with support from the government of Telangana and American Jewish World Service. To request a copy of the full report, contact AJWS’s Strategic Learning, Research and Evaluation division: Esther Lee, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Manjima Bhattacharjya, PhD, is a sociologist and feminist activist based in Mumbai. She is a senior program advisor for AJWS.