Age, caste, job, education: What data on couples in India shows
Data for nearly 64,000 couples from the 2015-16 National Family and Health Survey (NFHS) show several trends among Indian couples including that just over 2% married men have a wife who is older while two-thirds of them have only the husband as an earning member of the family.
Older husbands and younger wives from similar caste and religious groups are the defining characteristics of more than three-fourths of married couples in India. Parity exists in the education level of more than 50% of the couples. Two-thirds of couples have only the husband working for a living; the wife not working is a more common phenomenon among richer and more educated couples. These findings are based on data for nearly 64,000 couples from the 2015-16 National Family and Health Survey (NFHS). And as is always the case with social statistics in India, there are significant differences across regions, age cohorts, religious backgrounds and socio-economic classes in these headline numbers.
Just over 2% married men have a wife who is older. Three-fourths of husbands are at least two years older than their wives. However, the intra-couple age difference has been coming down. It is almost 7 years for the 50-54 year age cohort, and just 2.5 for 20-24 year olds. Among major religious groups, Hindus, Muslims and Christians have the highest age difference between husband and wife (an average of a little over 5 years), while it is the lowest among Sikhs (just 3.6 years). (See chart 1)
Sonalde Desai, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, who has been associated with the India Human Development Survey (IHDS), another rich socio-economic database in India, cautions against reading too much into the numbers. “This fuzziness in age reporting is closely linked to a patriarchal mindset which says husband must be older and taller than the wife, so whether he is or not, that is how he will be reported,” she said. Given this context the movement towards equality among younger couples might also be an indicator of changing attitudes.
A rather counter-intuitive finding from the data is that at least half of couples in India report similar education levels across various age groups. The parity is the most among the uneducated – three in four men who never went to school marry uneducated women. The data also shows a gradual convergence in the share of couples where either the husband or wife is more educated than the other. Educational parity among couples is more likely among urban, economically well-off couples. Hindus (34%) are most likely to have wives with lower education levels. This figure is the lowest among Christians (18%). This might possibly be because educational disparity between men and women is the least among Christians. (See chart 2)
Interestingly, the trend of richer urban couples having bigger parity in terms of education does not hold when it comes to employment equality for husbands and wives. The share of couples, where both husbands and wives work, increases by nine percentage points as one moves from the top to bottom wealth quintile across households. Muslims have the lowest share (12.6%) of couples with both husband and wife working, and it is the highest among Christians (30.3%). (See chart 3)
Since the NFHS also gives statistics on caste and religious groups of respondents, it is possible to calculate the share of couples who have married outside their religion or caste. To be sure, these numbers are likely to be an under-estimate because of two reasons. If either of the spouses has converted to the other’s religion for marriage, the database would show them as an intra-religion couple. Similarly, the caste data will only capture marriages outside broad caste groups such as Other Backward Classes, and Scheduled Castes rather than sub-castes, which matter a lot in martial ties in India. With these caveats in place, the data shows that inter-caste marriages are more common (12.6%) than inter-religious marriages (just 2.6%) in India.
Inter-religious marriages are the most common among Christians and the lowest among Hindus. Inter-religious marriages also increase with a rise in economic status, while there seems to be no significant effect of class on inter-caste marriages. The rate of inter-religious marriages has not changed over time as the rate is roughly the same across age cohorts but the rate of inter-caste marriages has displayed slim growth. (See chart 4)