“I got married when my grandmother died. I was 7 then. Eight girls in my family got married on the same day, including my sisters and my uncle’s daughters,” says Bhagwati.
In Bhiyansar, a small village in the Jodhpur district of Rajasthan, the elders and schoolgirls have come together to take a pledge against child marriages. As the male heads of the village speak at length on the ill effects of early marriage, 16-year-old Bhagwati sits quietly in a corner with her friends. She had missed school to attend the ceremony despite being rebuked by her mother.
Watch Video: Child brides of Rajasthan and their stories
She goes on to explain that it is part of tradition in her community to hold mass marriages of daughters on the occasion of a death. There is a silent sadness in her eyes as she says she does not understand the custom, but does not have a say in the matter either.
Bhagwati belongs to the Bishnoi community, reputed for its environment consciousness. A popular anecdote about the Bishnois tells the story of the community defending the trees in their forest using their bodies as shields when the Jodhpur King wanted to cut down all the trees for the sake of building his palace.
Dr Aidan Singh Bhati, a retired professor, says “such a tradition of mass marriages on the occasion of someone’s death is not limited to the Bishnoi community only. It is commonly practised in Rajasthan among the Jats and the OBCs.”
Radha, another 16-year-old, had just returned home from school and was chattering away with her friends. She loves reading and dreams of becoming an IAS officer someday. Later in the conversation Radha says she got married two years back.
“My uncle’s daughters were getting married so my father got me married as well. I told my parents I did not want to marry, I wanted to study further. But parents also have their own compulsions,” said Radha.
The tradition of mass marriages in families is clearly rooted in economic compulsions. Dr Bhati explains “the desert terrain in Rajasthan was frequently met with droughts and agriculture was not a secure source of income. Due to the scarcity of adequate financial resources, parents often thought that since people would anyways have to be invited on the occasion of someone’s death or the wedding of one daughter, it would be an ideal moment to marry off all other girls in the family regardless of age.”
However, poverty is no longer the prime reason behind mass marriages in these communities. But the custom has got so deeply rooted in tradition that it is difficult to do away with it. Dr Bhati says that in case there are no daughters in a family where a death has taken place, they marry off the daughters of close relatives, thinking the occasion to be auspicious enough.
Arvind Ojha, member of the global partnership “Girls not brides”, says “when a death takes place in the family, the community believes a wedding would be a good way to mark an end to the sadness.”
“Among these communities the death of an elderly person is in fact not seen as a sad event. They do not get very emotional about it and believe that the spirit of the dead one would in fact bless the married couple,” explains Dr Bhati.
Ojha goes on to explain that two reasons why this largely economic arrangement got so steeped in tradition are lack of safety and adequate opportunity for education.
Interestingly, community members are not at all unaware of the ill effects of an early marriage. This is evident from the fact that whatever be the age of the girl as which she got married, she never leaves for her husband’s home until she attains maturity at the age of 18 or 19. But then this hardly comes across as relief for the married girls who have to deal with the repercussions all through their adult life.
Bhauri, who is 25, got married with her uncle’s daughters and two younger sisters, the youngest being two months old. She was seven then and met her husband only when she left for his home 11 years later. It was then that she realised that he is an unemployed alcoholic.
“I did not know what marriage meant. I just knew that mehendi would be applied on my hands and I would wear good clothes. If I knew my husband was an alcoholic, I would have opposed the marriage. But I could not do anything then since my community would look down upon me. One just has to somehow live on at their in laws’ house,” she says.
Thankfully, there is a conspicuous feel of change in the atmosphere. Bhauri is determined to work hard and educate her daughter as much as possible. “I know the moment my husband’s grandmother passes away my family would want me to marry off my daughter. But I am all prepared to deal with the situation. I will only get her married when she wants to and to whom she wants to,” says Bhauri with an unswerving resolution.
Coming soon part III: In rural Rajasthan, women’s empowerment is also male dominated