Suppliers of wedding tents may not be the most obvious allies in the battle to prevent child marriage, but in Rajasthan they have come together to tackle some of the highest rates of early marriage in the country.
The Tent Dealers Welfare Samiti (Association) of Rajasthan, which has more than 9,000 members, has been demanding to see the birth certificates of the brides and grooms it has been supplying.
In India, the legal age of marriage for a woman is 18 and 21 for a man. The charity Girls Not Brides estimates the rate of child marriage to be as high as 65 percent in Rajasthan and almost 70% in Bihar.
The tent dealers association has stopped at least 80 child marriages in Rajasthan in the past two years, its president Ravi Jindal said.
“We want to show people that this is wrong, that they should not be doing this,” Jindal told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We complain to the police and the village headman, get them to intervene, so there is pressure on them to not do it.” Despite their efforts, and similar actions by thousands of suppliers across the state, the practice is rampant, he said.
In Rajasthan, a state famed for its palaces and forts, weddings peak during the Akshaya Tritiya festival in April and May, which is considered an auspicious period. Colourful tents decorated with flowers and lights are often erected for guests to enjoy the wedding feast.
Worldwide, more than 700 million women were married before their 18th birthday, according to a 2014 UNICEF report. While boys are also married as children, girls are disproportionately affected, it said. Early marriage makes it more likely that girls will drop out of school, and campaigners say it also increases the risks of exploitation, sexual violence, domestic abuse and death in childbirth.
South Asia is home to 42% of all child brides worldwide. India alone accounts for one-third of the global total, according to UNICEF.
Child marriage is most common in rural areas and among the poor, where a girl is seen as a financial burden, said Sanjay Sharma, general manager at the Save the Children charity in Rajasthan.
Girls are also married early because of fears for their safety, he said. “It is not as though people are not aware of the law, that it is not permitted,” Sharma said. “But they say it is their tradition. So every little action helps, be it from the police, from the government or tent suppliers,” he said.