Figures say a lot. There's one in particular that I ran across some years ago and then lost in the confusion on my book shelves. The little publication it is in (Radical Journal of Health, April-June 1995) came to light a day or two ago; unaccountably and mysteriously, it has found its way to our dining table.
What figure am I talking about? There's a table at the back titled "Mean Age at Marriage, 1981". It lists the mean age at which Indian women got married, rural and urban separately, and then breaks those numbers down by level of education. The figures are from the 1981 Census, yes, but hold on, there's something interesting in there.
First, what was the mean age at marriage for all women? Rural: 16.5 (that's 16 years and 6 months) Urban: 17.6 (17 years and 7 months).
Stunningly young, of course. Think of the number of women -- girls, I should say -- who were younger than that when they got married, if the mean was 16.5 and 17.6.
But there's something more interesting still.
For illiterate women, the mean age at marriage was: rural, 16.3; urban 16.8.
But what if the woman had been to primary school? Those numbers jump to: rural, 17.1; urban, 17.4.
The difference: rural, 0.8 years (9+ months); urban, 0.6 years (7+ months).
And it was that 9+ months that struck me. Why? You guessed it: 9 months in pregnancy.
So what these figures are saying is this -- put a rural Indian woman through primary school, and that immediately means she will likely be 9 months older when she marries. That means one less potential baby she will give birth to, just by virtue of being that many months older when she marries. (And the urban jump of 7+ months is close enough to 9 that we can say the same).
Apologies for putting this so bluntly and baldly. But this one figure has always put in perspective for me the value of education, and especially educating girls.