Key Points

  • Nearly half—45%—of young women in India marry (begin cohabiting with their husband) before age 18, the legal age at marriage for women. A majority, 63%, marry before age 20. 
  • Reflecting the country’s diversity, few women (12%) marry before age 18 in Goa and Himachal Pradesh, while nearly three-fifths (57–61%) do so in Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Bihar. Differences by area of residence are also stark: 28% in urban areas vs. 53% in rural areas.
  • Yet, there has been a slow trend toward delaying marriage: Nationally, the proportion of women marrying before their 18th birthday declined by five percentage points from 1993 to 2006, from 50% to 45%.
  • Similar trends emerged in the timing of first births. The proportion giving birth before age 18 declined by six percentage points during the same period (from 28% to 22%), and the proportion giving birth before age 20 fell by seven points (from 49% to 42%).
  • Contraceptive use remains very low: Just 7% of married 15–19-year-old women use a modern method, and 6%, a traditional method. Current use of modern methods ranges from a high of 18% in Delhi to a low of 2% in Bihar.
  • Forty-three percent of married 15–19-year-old women have an unmet need for modern contraception, down considerably from 52% in 1993, but still a very high proportion. n Unplanned childbearing among adolescents is not uncommon: 14% of all adolescents’ recent births were unplanned in 2006, a proportion that remained basically unchanged from that in 1993. 
  • Adolescent-specific reproductive health services continue to be scarce and inadequate, and targeted toward married adolescents. However, the government’s recent enactment of policies to address the information and service needs of adolescents is encouraging.
  • Programs to keep girls in school hold promise for decreasing early marriages; since childbearing outside marriage is rare, delays in marriage will go a long way toward reducing adolescent childbearing.