Although the legal age of marriage in India is 18, nearly half of young women marry—that is, begin cohabiting with their husbands—before their 18th birthday. Over the last decade and a half, little progress has been made in reducing the proportion of adolescents who become brides, according to a new report from the New York–based Guttmacher Institute and the International Institute for Population Sciences in Mumbai. The report compares nationally representative surveys from 1993, 1999 and 2006, and finds that during that time, the proportion of young women who married as minors decreased slowly, from 50% to 45%. Similarly, the proportion of young women giving birth before age 18 declined somewhat over the same period, from 28% to 22%, which is not surprising, given that childbearing is closely tied to marriage.

While a range of socioeconomic and cultural factors may influence when a young woman gets married, past research has shown that areas with higher levels of girls' education have lower rates of early marriage. Keeping girls in school longer has also been found to delay early childbearing, which is rare outside of marriage in India.

"A large percentage of young women in India are becoming wives and mothers before reaching adulthood," said lead author Ann Moore of the Guttmacher Institute. "Government programs aimed at reducing early marriage should focus on keeping girls in school longer." Data from the Indian states with the highest and lowest levels of educational attainment support this recommendation. For example, in the western state of Goa and the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, the states with the highest proportions of young people who receive at least six years of schooling, only 12% of young women marry before age 18. By contrast, in the eastern states of Bihar and Jharkhand, where girls have some of the lowest levels of education, 60–61% of young women marry as minors. Consistent with this pattern, the proportion of young women between 20 and 24 years old who become mothers before age 18 is highest in Jharkhand (37%) and Bihar (31%), and lowest in Goa and Himachal Pradesh (5%).

"Education allows women to make independent decisions about their own futures, and prepares them for meaningful work and economic independence," said coauthor Usha Ram of the International Institute for Population Sciences. "Research has repeatedly shown that when girls stay in school longer, they delay marriage, desire smaller families and are better able to achieve their childbearing goals."

Nationally, just 7% of married 15–19-year-old women use a modern method of contraception, a far smaller proportion than is found in neighboring South Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. More than four in 10 married adolescent women in India have an unmet need for contraception; that is, they are at risk of pregnancy, are not using an effective contraceptive method and do not want to have a child in the next two years. Unplanned childbearing among adolescents is fairly common—one in seven adolescents births were unplanned in 2006—an important indicator of their lack of access to contraceptive information and services. "One underlying problem is that many young Indian women are expected to marry while still adolescents and to have their first child shortly thereafter, often before they are physically mature enough to go through childbirth safely," said Moore.

The authors recommend that policymakers and program designers enact programs to encourage young women's schooling, since education holds promise for decreasing early marriage, and delays in marriage will go a long way toward reducing adolescent childbearing.

Click here for the full text of Adolescent Marriage and Childbearing in India: Current Situation and Recent Trends, by Ann Moore et al.