Scandal of the child brides

In rural India it is not unusual for girls to be married off at the age of 10 or 11 - despite the fact that under-age marriage is illegal. It takes a brave individual to try to halt the practice, as Justin Huggler reports from Rajgarh, Madhya Pradesh
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The first sign that a marriage procession is approaching is the raucous drumming that starts up outside the temple door. It's just a handful of children with drums, there's nothing much musical about it. The priest, his long, thin hair died a brilliant red more redolent of Johnny Rotten in his pomp than a Hindu temple, rouses himself sleepily from the bare marble floor. It's stiflingly hot, despite the ceiling fans whirring overhead.

The first sign that a marriage procession is approaching is the raucous drumming that starts up outside the temple door. It's just a handful of children with drums, there's nothing much musical about it. The priest, his long, thin hair died a brilliant red more redolent of Johnny Rotten in his pomp than a Hindu temple, rouses himself sleepily from the bare marble floor. It's stiflingly hot, despite the ceiling fans whirring overhead.

It's a typical enough Hindu marriage procession, the groom awkward and self-conscious under an unfamiliar huge turban, his forehead decorated with special marks; the bride, shyly covering her face behind the bright folds of her sari, her hands covered in an intricate lacework of henna.

Except that this bride, Radha Jatav, is just 11 years old. It's the first time she's met her husband, Kailash, who at 20 is almost double her age. Today they are getting married, and Radha will leave her parents' home and move in with her husband's family. She's never met any of them. Her parents' home is more than 20 miles away. In the villages here, with few cars and rare bus services, that's a long way.

"I'm not scared," Radha insists. She says she's excited about getting married. Her mannerisms are still those of a child, the gaudy make-up and glittering nose ring cannot make her into a woman. Her little sister Jyothi leaps excitedly about her, envious of Radha's wedding. To her it's just a game. But it's not.

Radha is among hundreds of thousands of girls forced into child marriages in India every year. They have no choice, their parents decide for them. Radha's wedding took place last Wednesday, on the Hindu auspicious day of Akash Tritiya. In the temple where we met her, Jalpa Devi, outside Rajgarh, officials recorded the names of 32 couples who married last Wednesday. Of those, 25 included at least one minor. And that is just one temple among hundreds across Madhya Pradesh state and neighbouring Rajasthan where couples flocked to be married.

They say as many as 200,000 child marriages take place in India every year, although there are no official figures. It is a custom which, according to the United Nations children's fund Unicef, leaves a legacy of women whose health is destroyed by bearing children too early, forced into marriage before they have any chance at an education, and traded by their families as if they were a piece of property.

Child marriage is illegal in India. It was allowed under British colonial rule, but it has been outlawed since independence in 1947. But enforcing the law has proved difficult and dangerous. While we were talking with Radha and her husband in the temple, not far away an Indian child welfare officer was fighting for her life. Shakuntala Verma's "crime" was that she tried to prevent three under-age girls from being married in the village of Bhangar. The villagers responded by cutting off one of her hands and trying to kill her.

Ms Verma, of the Department of Women and Children's Welfare, was just doing her job. She heard that three under-age girls from a single family were to be married in the village on Wednesday. So on Tuesday she travelled to the village and went to visit the family. She demanded to see proof of the girls' ages, and tried to talk the family out of marrying them off. She was unsuccessful and returned home.

That evening, there was a knock on her door. When she answered, a young man handed her a chit of paper with her name and address written on it, and asked if it was her. When she replied, he drew a sword and slashed at both of her hands and her head. One hand was severed. Another was seriously wounded. But she was lucky: she escaped serious head injury.

It took nine hours of intensive surgery to re-attach Ms Verma's hand. She is out of danger now, and both hands have been saved. Police have arrested a 23-year-old for the attack. But her experience is proof of how ingrained the practice of child marriage remains in the society here.

When we met Radha, she was with her uncle, 70-year-old Naru Lal. "If we keep our daughters until they're 13, they'll only elope with somebody," he smiled. "It's better to get them married young." Radha was not the youngest getting married that day. We found one bride who was 10, but she would not speak. Two years ago on the same festival, Sharda Bai was married when she was just two, to a 16-year-old husband, Gajraj Singh. She was so young her father had to carry her into the temple to receive the blessing.

The Jalpa Devi temple perches on top of the only hill for miles around. In every direction, the burning plain stretches as far as the eye can see. It's a barren, bleak place, there are no trees, just a few straggly bushes poking out of the parched earth. The air burns. There's no air conditioning here, and the temple staff lie stretched out on the bare marble floor, trying to keep cool.

In this heat, the couples arrive for blessings only in the early morning and late in the evening. It's not only the girls who get married under age. Fifteen-year-old Lakshminarayan Ahirwar arrives with his 13-year-old bride, Manju. "They can't do anything to me," he says defiantly when we ask why he has wed so young. "I am married. I haven't committed any crime."

He has, according to the Indian law, but the police officers standing outside the temple do nothing about it. "We try to prevent child marriages," says one of them, head constable Girja Mewada. "We can't arrest them because of the social pressure. We counsel them and advise them. It's all we can do." At the bottom of the hill, we pass two policemen on a powerful motorbike. One is carrying a military assault rifle across his shoulders - you have to be heavily armed to police these rural stretches of India. The villagers have guns too. They tell us a 10-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl were arrested the day before, but released on bail.

"If we arrest them, the entire village turns up at the police station to demand their release," one of the policemen says. "It becomes a matter of honour for them. There's no way we can hold them." But a sense of fear hangs around the child marriages. The villagers know they could get in trouble. We hear of an impending marriage and set off to the village to find the young couple. At first, the villagers deny the couple live there. When we find the family house, the elder brother says the young couple are not there. The atmosphere turns menacing. "Have you come from the government?" someone asks. We remember the child welfare officer who had her hand hacked off and leave.

The couples do not marry at the temple, they come only for a blessing. The weddings take place in the villages, and many are mass ceremonies where 100 or more couples are wed at once.

There was a mass wedding at Khujner village. Hundreds of brightly-coloured tents were set up around a huge open field, tents for the grooms on one side, facing tents for the brides on the other. Inside, the families were busy making preparations, folding turbans, decorating hands with henna. There was a deafening racket of festive music coming from loudspeakers.

At a mass ceremony the cost of the wedding is much lower - Indian weddings are notoriously expensive. The mass weddings are often sponsored by a local dignitary, often a politician, who donates wedding gifts.

And hidden among the hundred or so couples are usually several who are under age. Only recently there was a minor scandal after it emerged that several children had married in a mass ceremony laid on by a nationally famous politician.

At Khujner, we found Sangeeta Sahu, who looked about 14. When we asked her age, a local official interjected, in Hindi, hoping no one would translate for the foreign journalist. "What's the legal age?" he asked a colleague.

"Eighteen," the colleague replied.

"Tell him you're 19 then," he advised Sangeeta. The legal marriage age in India is 18 for women, 21 for men.

A little further on was Manju Sahu - they are not related, all the villagers use the same surname here. "I'm 15," she said. "No, wait, 16. No, 17." The first answer looked the most accurate.

But not all child brides live with their new husbands immediately. Manju's mother said she would keep her at home for another year before she let her leave. Often this is part of the marriage agreement. In some parts of Rajasthan, children are engaged almost as soon as they are born, but not married until years later.

Back at the Jalpa Devi temple, Indrajit Singh Bais explains why the custom of child marriages persists to this day. Mr Bais works for the Department of Women and Children's Welfare - the same as Ms Verma. He is here to record the names of all the newly-wed couples coming to the temple for a blessing, so the department can keep a record of child marriages in the area. Sometimes he tries to talk the young couples out of it. But he does not dare go further.

"They do it because of illiteracy," he says. "They never take care of their children. The parents want their son to get married as quickly as possible so they can have his wife as an extra pair of hands to help in the fields, with the cooking, around the house. And the girl's parents want to marry her off because in this community, there is no dowry. It's the bride's parents who get paid," he says.

"In this area you have a tradition called natra. If there is a break-up in the marriage, the girl goes back to her parents. Then her parents sell her to some one else as a wife for a price. This can happen several times, with the price going down each time."

In other words, women are property here, an asset to sell off. And according to Anu Dikshit of Unicef, it is the girls who pay the heaviest price for marrying so young.

"It's not a big problem for the boys," she says. "They're not the ones who get pregnant young, whose health suffers, who have no chance to do anything else with their lives." Recently, a group of Indian girls and young women have united to try to protect themselves from child marriages, telling their parents and communities they will refuse to get married before they are 18, and insisting on a chance for an education.

But such cases of rebellion are rare in India, and it's almost unthinkable out here, among the illiterate communities in this sun-blasted landscape.

After he was told what had happened to Ms Verma, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Babula Gaur's reaction was as depressing as it was predictable. "After speaking to officials, I do not think that the matter has got anything to do with child marriages," he claimed. "It is not possible to stop it [child marriage]," he said. "Have we been able to end alcoholism or untouchability? If Gandhiji could not succeed in this, how can Babula Gaur?" Meanwhile in Madhya Pradesh, hundreds of young lives were being blighted irreparably.