IndiaSpend ResearchWire - November 6


In this edition of ResearchWire by IndiaSpend, we discuss the proposed increase in women’s legal age of marriage, why politicians may mess up the pandemic but will still win elections, India’s place in the global impunity index that documents journalist murders, why you must thank your older sister, and an illustration of how COVID-19 can spread in different scenarios.

If you’ve missed the earlier editions, you can read them here.

If only it were as simple as changing the law

As PM Modi readies to raise the legal age of marriage for women, it is worth questioning if this will help. A report by the SBI chief economist Soumya Kanti Ghosh outlines several social and economic benefits for women, and indeed the economy, of doing so—including lowering maternal deaths, increasing women’s education, and financial independence. It is argued that as the marriage age for women increases, more women will join the workforce and the economy will flourish. But this is a simplistic argument.

Read this and this on how the real reasons behind early marriage for women in India are many, and have little to do with the law.

Social and cultural norms make it expensive to have daughters, and parents reduce these costs by marrying their daughters off at an early age. A strong son-preference leads to more and more unwanted daughters, each of whom is disposed of either by infanticide or early marriage.

Not only will a change in the legal age be meaningless in such a scenario, but as this shows, it may even be actively dangerous. Increasing the age of marriage to 21 years would mean that girls will have no say in their personal matters until they are 21. The law has been used frequently by parents against daughters choosing to elope or marry men of their choice. 

Even if the law declares a child marriage invalid, they will continue to have social validity in the eyes of the community—unless the more fundamental bits change.

“There are huge financial penalties, which go into lakhs of rupees depending on which caste and biradri you come from, for breaking a marriage which the law does not address or provide protection against.” 

The current law gives social workers flexibility to negotiate with families, seek support from the administration, and child protection agencies. They do not use the law to formally prosecute—“the repercussions at the village level are very severe for those who interfere”. 

Finally, read this on how, if improving women’s health and nutrition status is what we want, addressing poverty is essential.

They’re coming back

If you’ve marvelled at Modi’s soaring popularity even as it becomes clear that the government could’ve handled the pandemic a lot better than it did, here is some evidence that might explain why. A survey across India, the UK and the US (by Arnab Acharya, John Gerring, and Aaron Reeves) finds that politicians are unlikely to be punished or rewarded for their failures or successes in managing COVID-19 in the next election.

This could be possibly because public health is not viewed as a political issue but as a matter of personal conduct, group status or socioeconomic standing; or that the global nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has inoculated politicians from blame.

This doesn’t mean that democracies are bad for public health. In fact, most studies suggest a positive relationship between democracy and improved public health, but this is often attributed to electoral accountability; i.e. politicians deliver better health outcomes because they want votes in the next election—and this may not be the case. Democracies may promote health, but perhaps for reasons other than electoral accountability—e.g., through better leaders

The kind of news you could do without

India has found itself headlining the list of countries where journalists are killed, and their killers go free. The 2020 Global Impunity Index by the Committee to Protect Journalists calculates the number of unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of each country’s population—including only deliberate killings in retaliation to the victim’s work, and not cases of journalists killed in combat or while on dangerous assignments.

Somalia, Syria, Iraq, and South Sudan occupy the worst four spots, and India ranks 12th on the list with 17 such unsolved murders. 

Note also that India is ranked 142 of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index. Between 1992 and 2016, 27 Indian journalists who were investigating corruption were murdered. The National Crime Records Bureau began recording attacks on journalists in 2014, but reports since 2017 did not provide data on such attacks.

Have an older sister? Thank her

Since we’re always looking for a reason to educate girls (because god forbid you educate them to just educate them), here’s a new one. Using data from rural Pakistan between 2003 and 2006, Javaeria Qureshi finds that an increase in schooling for older sisters raises educational outcomes for her younger brothers. Pamela Jakiela and others also find that in rural Kenya, having an older sister rather than an older brother, has a greater positive impact on younger siblings’ vocabulary and fine motor skills. This should not come as a surprise given the role older sisters play in families in such traditional societies.

In many low and lower middle income societies, older sisters act as ‘alloparents’—i.e. they do much of the childcare while mothers are busy with farming, paid work, and other household tasks.

What’s the policy implication? In what is both sad and true, Javaeria suggests that even though parents care less about their daughters’ education because they have no career aspirations for their daughters, or they don’t benefit from their daughters’ future employment, if we can show them that educated daughters could lead to better educated sons, this is something they may care more about.

Don’t read this

I was going to visit friends this weekend for the first time since March, but then I saw this. Using a tool developed by José Luis Jiménez, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Colorado and an expert in the chemistry and dynamics of air particles, this piece calculates the risk of infection from COVID-19 in different “at-risk” scenarios—including from a social gathering in someone’s living room. The analysis goes into how the risks change when you spend more time with friends, or when one or some people wear a mask.

It is a helpful illustration of how the risk of contagion can be lowered by changing conditions we do have control over.

The graphics are very cool, and this is one of those things that kids should see—but avoid reading it if you have weekend plans that involve meeting people.

Amee Misra
Contributing Editor, IndiaSpend
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The October 23 edition of this newsletter incorrectly attributed Dollar Street to the Swedish economist Hans Rosling. Dollar Street was invented by Anna Rosling Rönnlund. This has now been corrected.