Kesar, like other 16-year-olds in the crowd, can’t stop chattering about the big dreams they have for the future, to someday become a teacher or a police officer. But for this Class XI student there is a bit of an impediment: she was married off as a 12-year-old.
“I realised I was married only when I was 14. I want to ask my parents why they got me married so soon,” Kesar maintains a straight face as she narrates her story.
As the girls run around the playground playing Kho-Kho, Kesar explains that she got married on the same day as two of her elder sisters. Her parents never told her anything, neither did she ask. The girl from Lakhasar village in Rajasthan’s Bikaner district remembers nothing of the day and has not yet met her husband. She will leave for her husband’s home only when she turns 18.
But her’s is not an isolated incident. Her school teacher explains that out of 300 girls in her school, at least 10 were married off as children. In the rough terrain of Rajasthan’s deserts, child marriages have been part of lifestyle for centuries. The feudalistic society ensured that all power always rested in the hands of the male head. This, coupled with the hardships of a desert economy, have made traditional social practices like this endure.
The numbers are startling. The Annual Health Survey for 2012-13 shows 51.2 per cent of women in Rajasthan aged between 20-25 were married off before the age of 18.
Bhauri is 25, but she got married when she was seven. She currently works as a social activist, spreading awareness on the ill effects of early marriages. “I did not know what marriage meant. I just knew that mehendi would be applied on my hands and I would wear good clothes,” she says.
Bhauri’s uncle had five daughters who were getting married, so her father got her married off on the same day. It was that easy. Two of her younger sisters also got married on that day, the youngest being two months old. She met her husband only when she left for his home at the age of 18. It was then that she realised that he is an alcoholic and does not do any work.
“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, trying hard to control her tears.
Watch Video: Child brides of Rajasthan and their stories
Economic considerations always on top for these marriages, usually an attempt to balance out marriage costs. Bhauri, for instance is from the Bishnoi community of Western Thar desert, who are known to marry off a number of young girls on the occasion of a death in the family. The expenses of the funeral ceremony can cover up the cost of weddings as well.
These traditions are now so deep rooted that it has become extremely difficult for the modern legal system to uproot. Project officer of the Rajasthan Department of Women Empowerment Prahlad Singh says: “We try to create awareness in rural areas through interactive sessions and street plays. If we get any complaint of a child marriage taking place, we immediately send the police to the venue and they stop the wedding from solemnising. But then some marriages do take place without our knowledge. The instances of child marriages have definitely come down over the years and now only in 10-15% cases do such marriages take place.”
Awareness programs by NGOs are also common. Ashok Sharma, district coordinator at Urmul, an NGO working in the space of rural health, research and development, explained the community driven approach taken by them that includes making the village sarpanch and caste leaders aware of the ill effects of child marriage. He said that over the past three to four years the number of child marriages in the state has drastically come down.
However, despite the combined initiatives of the state and NGOs, statistics show that a significant number of women still get married under the legal age. What is scarier though is that all the awareness campaigns and state initiatives has made child marriages harder to detect.
Vijender Kumar, who manages a child helpline number for Urmul in Kolayat block of Bikaner, says most calls pertain to child marriage or child labour and they respond by informing the local police immediately.
“If a wedding is expected to take place at 10 PM, we get the information the same day in the evening. By the time we inform the police and they reach the venue it is already late. The contracting party either hide the girl or take away both the boy and the girl to a far off place and get them married,” says Kumar, adding that they get constant life threats from community members for preventing these marriages.
Kumar narrates an incident from a fortnight back when they were informed about the wedding of a 16-year-old girl, scheduled to take place the following day. The village community somehow got to know of the leak and hid the girl. Also, the police never turned up at the venue and three days later they got to know that the girl had been married off outside the district. “There is very less sensitisation among the police,” says Kumar.
Brahma Prakash, head of the Special Juvenile Police unit in Kolayat, says they get notified about at least 15-20 cases of child marriages a year. The number can grow manifold on special occasions like “Akkha Teej” and “Dev Uthani Gyaras”. “Sometimes we are late and this gives enough time to change venues and conduct the wedding. However, in the past few years we have managed to tackle many such cases by maintaining good relations with the local community members,” adds Prakash.
He highlights that the biggest challenge is the fact that there is still no provision in the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 to nullify the marriage. The Act states:
Every child marriage, whether solemnised before or after the commencement of this Act shall be voidable at the option of the contracting party to the marriage who was a child at the time of the marriage:
Provided that a petition for annulling a child marriage by a decree of nullity may be filed in the district court only by a contracting party to the marriage who was a child at the time of the marriage.
According to Prakash, in the absence of a provision that gives powers to the police to nullify a marriage post its commencement unless directed to do so by a contracting party, they cannot take any action against it.
However, the Act also states that “whoever performs, conducts, directs or abets any child marriage shall be punishable with rigorous imprisonment which may extend to two years and shall be liable to fine which may extend to one lakh rupees unless he proves that he had reasons to believe that the marriage was not a child marriage.” But despite this, Prakash says not a single arrest has been made in his jurisdiction in the past couple of years. The police just make the ‘contracting party’ sign a document saying they will not get their children married.
Apart from the inadequate provisions in the Child Marriage Act and the inaction of the police, the village communities too have found ways of circumventing the laws. In majority of the child marriage cases, the girls were married off at a young age, as early at 7-8, but do not leave for their in-laws’ homes before they turned 18.
Prabha Ram of village 2 AD in Bikaner district says they follow the tradition of kachhi shaadi (informal wedding) and pakki shaadi (formal wedding). The kachhi shaadi can take place as early as when the girl is 10-12. It is a ritual where the elders of the two families sit together and pass around a coconut shell filled with some token amount of money and announce the informal wedding of their children. After the girl turns 18-20, the formal wedding takes place and the girl goes to the groom’s house.
“We just feel that it is better to marry off the girl before she turns old enough to rebel against her parents. There is also the question of safety of the girl,” says Prabha Ram.
Asked what happens if the girl disagrees to the marriage at the time of the pakki shaadi, he says: “If that happens all the villagers will turn against her and stop giving any support to her.”
Prabha Ram explains that the villagers are fully aware of the law, but is of the opinion that if they decide to get their children married at an early age, the police had no right to interfere. His explanation of the tradition of kachhi and pakki shaadi clearly shows how a community has managed to hold on to tradition while bypassing the laws. But the root problem of gender rights, has evidently remained unsolved.
Coming soon part II: Where little girls become brides each time an elder dies