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India's underage brides wedded to tradition

india Updated: May 16, 2007 13:36 IST
Nita Bhalla
Nita Bhalla
Reuters
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Dusty towns and villages turn into a brief riot of colour each year in the desert state of Rajasthan as thousands of Hindu couples tie the knot and seek the blessings of Lord Vishnu.

Guests gather while grooms in colourful turbans and brides adorned with gold jewellery and wearing red saris walk around a sacred fire, pledging to protect each other.

The festival of 'Akha Teej' sees life-long bonds forged — and many childhoods tragically cut short.

Social activists say many of those getting married are children, sometimes as young as 10, forced into wedlock yet physiologically and emotionally unprepared to be a wife.

In Alsisar, about four hours drive north of Jaipur, 14-year-old Lalita Saini will soon go and live with her 19-year-old husband from a neighbouring village.

"I was married around Akha Teej last year, but I don't know my husband as I only saw him once at the wedding," said the meek, pony-tailed little girl, a blue scarf draped over her head.

"I didn't want to get married, but I had no choice."

The festival, known more widely outside Rajasthan as Akshaya Tritiya, celebrates the birthday of the sixth incarnation of Vishnu, the preserver of life in the Hindu pantheon.

Despite being illegal since 1929, child marriage is still rampant in parts of India mainly due to traditional views and poor law enforcement in a conservative, male-dominated society.

According to a 2006 government survey, around 45 percent of girls in India are married before the legal age of 18. Almost 30 percent of boys are wed before they reach the compulsory 21.

Child rights campaigners say the impact of early marriages on girls -- and to a lesser extent boys -- is devastating.

"Girls lose their childhood, education and even risk their health due to early pregnancy," said Rajan Choudhary of Shikshit Rojgar Kendra Prabandhak Samiti (SRKPS), a charity working against child marriages in Rajasthan's Jhunjhunu district.

Domestic drudgery

Rajasthan, where camels roam a landscape dotted with the ruins of ancient fortresses, has the highest rate of child marriage in India with 57 percent of girls marrying before 18.

Village girls are taken out of school to serve their marriage apprenticeship: scrubbing floors, making dung cakes for fuel, collecting cattle fodder or carrying water for kilometres in searing heat.

Daughters are considered a liability in this patriarchal society — where female foeticide is also rampant — mainly due to the banned but rampant practice of dowry, where the bride's parents hand cash and goods to the groom's family.

Parents here also prefer to get daughters married early, concerned that as they grow into young women they could attract unwanted attention and bring scandal.

"After the age of 13, I stopped my daughter leaving the house as who knows what will happen," said Lalita's mother, Sumund.

"Now she is becoming a woman, some man could take notice of her or she could run off with someone and may bring shame on the family."

Marrying younger children off at the same time as older ones also offers major savings for often desperately poor families.

A childhood lost

Activists say girls who marry at a young age are more vulnerable to domestic violence and sexual abuse, and less likely to complete primary education.

Early marriages contribute to high rates of maternal mortality — one woman dies every seven minutes from a pregnancy-related cause in India — with young bodies not mature enough for sex or pregnancy.

According to a recent report by the United Nations Children's Fund, girls under 15 are five times more likely to die during pregnancy and child birth than those in their twenties.

"I was married when I was 13 and I didn't understand why I had to go and live in another house and sleep with a strange man," said Muni Karia, 30, a SRKPS worker in Alsisar.

"I was scared. I was bleeding for days but luckily I survived ... others are not so lucky," she said, adding that she had had three children by the age of 18.

In an attempt to save millions of childhoods, the government last year toughened laws to prosecute priests, police, wedding guests and local leaders involved in encouraging child marriages.

Now adult males marrying children and people involved in performing, abetting or attending a child marriage can face up to two years in prison and a fine of 100,000 rupees.

But officials admit it will be an uphill struggle to combat deeply ingrained traditions.

"It will take time ... changing mindsets is a huge challenge but we have to do it to save and protect our children and ensure they have a happy and healthy future," Renuka Chowdhury, minister for women and child development, said recently.