Child marriage has been outlawed in India for years. Women cannot legally marry before they reach the age of 18. Yet the practice persists, particularly in poor, rural communities. And the children of these marriages often pay a terrible price.
Dr. Anita Raj of Boston University has been studying the impact of child marriage.
In a paper published early last year, she found that girls who married before age 18 were more likely to have unwanted pregnancies.
In her newest research, Raj describes a link between child marriage and malnutrition among the babies born to these young women.
Study's analysis reveals 'the malnutrition effect'
"Those mothers who marry younger were significantly more likely to have low birth weight infants, to have infant and child mortality and to have infant and child malnutrition," she says.
Some of those differences were statistically attributed to factors like poverty and education. That still left a high incidence of low weight and other signs of poor nutrition.
"Even if you control for the fact that women married as minors are more likely to have no formal education, are more likely to live in a rural context, are more likely to be living in abject poverty," Raj stresses, "you still see the malnutrition effect."
For her study, Raj and her colleagues used data from an Indian government survey. They analyzed information related to some 20,000 babies, most of them born to women who were under 18 when they got married.
A competition for nutrition may play a role
Although her research doesn't explain what's causing the malnutrition among babies born to these very young mothers, Raj says it may be due in part to the fact that both the baby and mother are still growing, and are, in a sense, competing for scarce nutritional resources.
"Then, whatever she's taking in, there's going to be sort of a fight. And we think that sometimes that's going to cause health problems for the mother, and sometimes it's going to cause health problems for the baby. Either way, it's not a good health situation," Raj says.
Raj, an Indian-American herself, says she recognizes that child marriage is a longstanding cultural tradition in rural India. But she says it's associated with too many negatives, both for mother and child.
"It's sort of an inadequate justification for the continuation of the practice. Also, adolescent marriage does not necessarily mean adolescent pregnancy or childbirth. But it is happening because of the lack of support young girls have in terms of their knowledge and their access to [family planning] programs [and]in terms of their ability to negotiate what they want for their own bodies."
Raj's paper appears in the British Medical Journal.