Indian Decade

India’s Young Women Shame

The discrimination facing girls in India is shameful. Too many are pressured into early marriage.

A factsheet released earlier this year entitled ‘The World's Women and Girls’, produced by the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau, showed that a whopping 47 percent of women in India are married off by the time they are 18 years-old.

Not only is India’s average higher than the one for South Central Asia (45 percent), but the country also fares worse than several African nations, including Ghana, Sudan and Nigeria. In contrast, Pakistan’s figure was 24 percent, while even war-ravaged Afghanistan (43 percent) apparently did a better job of curbing youth marriage than the world’s largest democracy.

Indian women face enormous disparities in treatment in practically every sphere—from health to education to nutrition. They also frequently experience early marriage that too often ends with them being trapped in a vicious cycle of premature child-bearing, high rates of maternal mortality, and child under-nutrition.

Despite India being touted as an economic superstar—its economy is galloping along at about eight percent growth—the health and education indices of its girls is abysmal. Analysts point out that adolescent girls in India face a greater risk of nutritional problems than adolescent boys, including anaemia and being underweight; the percentage of underweight adolescent girls aged between 15 and 19 is 47 percent in India—the highest in the world.

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In addition, over half of girls in the same age group are anaemic. This has serious long-term health repercussions as being anaemic or underweight while also being married off early is a potentially deadly combination for pregnancy. Anaemia is one of the key indirect causes of maternal mortality, which stood at 230 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2008. India’s maternal mortality rate is one of the world's highest, and the government is nowhere close to attaining the Millennium Development Goal of reducing maternal mortality by three quarters between 1990 and 2015.

This apathy towards girls is inexplicable for a country where women occupy the most senior positions of power—the country’s president (Pratibha Devisingh Patil), the leader of the ruling UPA alliance (Sonia Gandhi), the speaker of the lower house of parliament or Lok Sabha (Meira Kumar), New Delhi’s chief minister (Sheila Dixit) and the city’s mayor (Rajni Abbi) are all women. 

Most recently, two formidable women—Mamta Banerjee and Jayalalitha—crushed their political opponents, romping home to stunning victories in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. It will be interesting to see if they’re able to make a difference in their own states where national politicians seem to be failing.