May 11, 1998
Child Marriages, Though Illegal, Persist in India
Once Widowed in India, Twice Scorned (March 29)
By JOHN F. BURNS
ADHOGARH, India -- If a wedding is supposed to fulfill a girl's earliest dreams, Hansa's in this tiny hamlet in Rajasthan state seemed more like a nightmare.
Early in the starlit evening, the smoke from the sacred fire began searing her eyes. The rituals pushed the ceremony deep into the night, in a crucible of heat and haze. After the first two hours, Hansa was quietly sobbing. By midnight, with Hindu priests leading Hansa and her new husband, Sitaram, in the climactic ritual, involving seven purifying circuits of the wood-burning fire, Hansa's wailing was drowning the rhythmic mantras of the priests.
"I want to go to bed," she cried. "Please, Mama, Papa. Let me sleep!"
Bafflement can only have worsened the ordeal, since Hansa, the youngest of six sisters being married in a joint ceremony to boys from other villages, was only 4. Her husband was 12.
Such weddings are common in Rajasthan, a state known for its desert landscapes, hilltop forts and maharajahs' palaces, as well as its persistence in feudal traditions, including child marriages, that have kept Rajasthani women among the most socially disadvantaged in India.
Indian law sets 18 as the minimum age for a woman to marry and 21 for a man. When India's Parliament adopted the Child Marriage Restraint Act in 1978, legislators hoped that the statute would curb child marriages and the social ills they perpetuate.
Concern focused on an arc of populous northern states where child marriages are most deeply rooted: Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, with a combined population of 420 million, about 40 percent of all Indians.
According to decades of research, child marriages contribute to virtually every social problem that keeps India behind in women's rights. The problems include soaring birth rates, grinding poverty and malnutrition, high illiteracy and infant mortality, and low life expectancy, especially among rural women.
In Rajasthan, a survey of more than 5,000 women conducted by the national government in 1993 showed that 56 percent had married before they were 15. Of those, 3 percent married before they were 5 and another 14 percent before they were 10. Barely 18 percent were literate, and only 3 percent used any form of birth control other than sterilization.
Large families and poor health for children and mothers were among the results. The survey showed that of every 1,000 births, 73 children died in infancy, and 103 were under the age of 5 when they died. Sixty-three percent of children under 4 were found to be severely undernourished. Average life expectancy for women was 58.
In every case, the figures were among the worst for any Indian state.
Social workers report that many husbands tire of their marriages after the third, fourth or fifth child, when their wives are still teen-agers. Alcoholism contributes to domestic violence, with sometimes fatal beatings.
In some cases, husbands sell their wives, and even their unmarried daughters, as sexual partners to other men. In scores of cases every year, village women strike back by killing their husbands, only to face long terms in prison.
"It is a tragedy for these little flowers, and for our country, that they are snatched away into marriage before they even have a chance to bloom," said Mohini Giri, 60, chairwoman of the National Commission for Women, a government agency established in the early 1990s that has become a driving force for raising awareness about the plight of women.
In Rajasthan, child marriages remain so popular that virtually every city, town and village takes on a holiday atmosphere ahead of the day set by astrologers for the annual Akha Teej festival -- the moment judged most auspicious for marriages.
On the day of the festival, usually in late April or early May, roads are choked with tractors pulling trailers filled with gaily dressed wedding guests. On the outskirts of every settlement there are open-sided wedding tents in brightly patterned fabrics known as pandals.
Each year, formal warnings are posted outside state government offices stating that child marriages are illegal, but they have little impact.
Three strangers arriving at Madhogarh, the village where Hansa was married, had only to pull off the main road running south from the town of Alwar, 125 miles southwest of New Delhi, and drive a mile to spot a wedding pandal.
Villagers were unhesitating in their welcome, even when one of the visitors was introduced as a reporter.
"Of course, we know that marrying children is against the law, but it's only a paper law," said Govind Singh Patel, a village elder in the cattle-herding Gujjar community, which is among the poorest in Rajasthan and the most resistant to social change.
Sociologists say the Gujjars and similar groups trace the origin of child marriages to Muslim invasions that began more than 1,000 years ago. Legend has it that the invaders raped unmarried Hindu girls or carried them off as booty, prompting Hindu communities to marry off their daughters almost from birth to protect them.
Today, the stories have an echo in the local view that any girl reaching puberty without getting married will fall prey to sexual depredations, some from men imbued with the common belief that having sex with a "fresh" girl can cure syphilis, gonorrhea and other sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS.
Tradition has been reinforced by necessity. In villages like Madhogarh, a family can be fortunate to have an annual income of $500, less in years when there is drought or flood. Securing early marriages for daughters can mean the difference between subsistence and hunger.
Traditionally, this has meant seeking grooms in neighboring villages, since the fear of inbreeding has generated a taboo against marriage between boys and girls from the same village.
Hansa's father, Shriram Gujjar, 40, works an acre of land beside the family's thatched home of mud and straw, with three cows to supplement his crop of mustard and wheat. Villagers say his troubles were compounded when his wife, Gyarsi Devi, gave birth to seven daughters but no sons.
But Gujjar's fortunes improved when a network of community contacts found husbands for the first six daughters, ranging in age from 4-year-old Hansa to Dohli, 14. An infant girl of 18 months, and another child on the way, will await another marriage ceremony in the future.
Gujjar, a fierce-looking man with a handlebar mustache and a luxuriant white turban, said he had borrowed about 60,000 rupees, about $1,500, to pay for the dowries required by the grooms' families and for the wedding festivities. While the loan will be a problem for years, he said, the weddings mean that he can now look forward to growing old without being trapped in penury by the need to support his daughters.
"Tonight I am a free man again!" he said, grinning as he circulated proudly among the scores of wedding guests seated cross-legged beneath the pandal.
After a moment to check the register in which cash donations from the guests were being entered, he returned, thrust his hands into the air in a gesture of release and added, "Thanks to God, the heaviest of my burdens has been lifted."
The brides spend the night of their weddings in their homes, and then join their husband's families the next day for a journey to their in-laws' village.
In Hansa's case, this entailed traveling half a day by oxcart and bus to a village 25 miles away. After a few days there, tradition required that she return to her family in Madhogarh and await the onset of puberty, when another ceremony known as the Gauna would mark her fitness to join her husband's family.
But not all grooms' families are prepared to wait for puberty. In many cases documented by sociologists, girls as young as 6 or 7 have been taken away by their husbands' families to begin working as servants or field hands.
"With the addition of a girl to the household, the in-laws get a laborer, someone who will feed the cattle and clear the house, a servant who comes free of cost," said Ratan Katyani, a social worker in the Rajasthan city of Jaipur.
In 1994 the National Commission for Women urged the national government, then headed by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, to consolidate the separate marriage laws that exist for each of the major religious communities -- Hindu, Muslim and Christian -- and to include a provision requiring that all marriages be legally registered. That, the commission reasoned, could be used to bar any under-age marriages.
But the government rejected the proposal, as did its successor, headed by Prime Minister Deve Gowda, in 1996.
"It has been the consistent policy of the government not to interfere in the personal laws of the distinct communities unless the initiative comes from the communities themselves," the government said in a statement. "The government is of the view that it is only through social and economic upliftment of these sections of the community that the practice can be eradicated."