Akha Teej -- the Superbowl Sunday of Child Marriage

05.28.2006 | SOCIETY

NEW DELHI -- Win a Nobel Prize and you're allowed to mix your metaphors. The economist Amartya Sen recently described India as an archipelago of Silicon Valleys in a sea of Sub-Saharan Africa. The Indian press uses slightly different shorthand for the same two-nations idea: "India Inc." and "India Invisible."

Far-western Rajasthan, where proud camels still haul water tanks between stick-and-stone villages separated by ever-shifting sand dunes, is as invisible to the world as India gets. It's not that people don't come to Rajasthan, which borders Pakistan; it's actually one of the country's most touristed regions. But most people take fast trains to its picturesque fort towns, ride a camel or elephant on the outskirts, snap some shots of the colorful local dress, and then B-line it back up to Delhi.

Those who push further into the interior will find a land that time forgot -- a Tatooine populated by illiterate desert dwellers for whom every day is a war for existence. Rajasthan sees rain, at most, twice a year. Home to India's nuclear testing range, there is no economy outside its two major cities besides a little salt production. People herd goats, collect water and wood, and pull what they can from the dry earth. It's always been a brutal environment to live in -- so brutal that waves of Rajasthanis once hoofed it all the way to the southeastern doorstep of Europe, where they are currently known (and almost universally reviled) as Gypsies.

One of the medieval traditions still thriving in Rajasthan's bleak desert outback is child marriage. It was in search of the custom that I traveled to western Rajasthan in early May. I arrived on a festival day known as Akha Teej, the most auspicious day on the Hindu calendar to marry; the only one for which an astrologer is not required. It is the Superbowl Sunday of Child Marriage.

My guide was a jovial Rajasthani author and journalist, Vinod Vithal, one of the few Indian journalists left who still covers rural issues. Vinod probably has more eyes and ears along Rajasthan's long strategic border with Pakistan than Indian intelligence. In exchange for occasional help navigating state bureaucracies and city hospital waiting rooms, his desert friends tell him everything that goes on out there. Once he received an early morning tip from a remote village source about an ISI (Pakistani intelligence) cell newly operating on the Indian side of the border. Vinod reported the location of the cell in the early edition of the Hindustan Times. The Paks were rounded up by the time the sun had lifted itself over the sand.

It was while sitting on the steps of Vinod's house in Jodhpur, Rajasthan's "blue city," named after its sea of blue houses within the old city wall, that I got my first surprise glimpse of child marriage. Two pre-adolescents no older than 10 walked by in full Rajasthani wedding regalia, their elaborate headdresses glittering in the 110+ degree afternoon sun.

"Holy shit," I whispered. "Look!"

Seeing this couple on my first morning was like spotting a cougar pounce on a purple panda five minutes into a discount safari.

"They're going to temple for jat," explained Vinod, the proud guide, referring to a Hindu post-wedding ritual.

"Aren't they afraid of the cops?" I asked.

"If they're stopped, they'll say they're just playing dula-duli, a dress-up game," he said.

Child marriage is illegal in India, has been for a long time. Indian reformers under the British Raj successfully lobbied for the implementation of the Sharda Act (1929) that set the current legal age of marriage (18 for women; 21 for men). But outside the cities custom trounced law. In 1978, the Indian government passed the Child Marriage Restraint Act, but this too failed to curb the practice. Last year the Indian Supreme Court passed an addendum to the Sharda Act requiring all marriages be registered with local authorities with birth certificates presented, but it's estimated that only one-quarter of all rural Indians even know about such laws.

"There is this enormous gap between the state and north India's rural citizens," Vinod explained as we left Jodhpur. We were driving west to meet the Sand People.

"Out here it's a completely different country," he said. "Bonded labor and child marriage continue unchecked like it was the sixteenth-century. There's a huge caste-based flesh trade, entire red-light villages, like sex shopping malls. Sometimes they're raided and pillaged by army units. Lots of marauding army out here. This was Pakistan's invasion route in '72, remember, so lots of bases. We captured a Pak tank in that war. American-made. There are so many stories out here about life in the desert. But nobody cares. The papers prefer to talk about some Indian IT grad at Microsoft making $2 million."

The stats on Indian child marriage hit even the Alabaman like smelling salts. The Indian government estimates that almost 60 percent of girls are married before the legal age of 18. In Rajasthan, 40 percent of girls marry before they reach 13. Fifteen percent are not yet 10 years old. It's not unknown for tots to be widowed before they take their first step.

"Now it's just a custom, but there are historical reasons behind child marriage," said Vinod, as we navigated a sandstorm past driverless camels and an occasional intercity death bus with men crowded on the roof.

Culturally, child marriage can be traced back to a Vedic decree that says girls must marry before they begin menstruating. The custom was further enshrined during the medieval Mogul invasions, when unmarried girls were abducted or abused by the Muslim conquerors. The traditional Indian symbols of marriage in India - -the ear-to-nose chain and the forehead bindi -- were born as clear social markers designed to protect women in a state of war and upheaval. Even the bloodthirsty sword-swinging invaders respected the meaning of a tiny red dot on the forehead. Islam is ultraconservative about sex even on the warpath.

After driving for two-hours through the dunes, we stopped at a roadside tea stand outside the village of Shekhasar. Sitting on several charpoys (traditional handmade cots) was a hardscrabble collection of middle-aged men. The man at the front of the group owned the dusty tea shack. His name was Harjiram. Later that night, he would marry off his five children: ages seven to 12.

I sat down. Vinod introduced me and explained my interest. Before I could say anything, Harjiram challenged me with a question: "If I do not marry my children together, who will help me pay for five ceremonies?"

A thin line of betel nut juice ran down the man's chin. He had very few teeth.

I didn't try to answer the question. It's true there are strong economic incentives for poor families to marry off their children, especially daughters, as early as possible, often in groups. Dowries, still a common practice in India, increase in size in proportion to age. Then there is the cost of the wedding ceremony. Rural families with numerous children simply cannot afford the expense of multiple weddings, and so bundle them together, regardless of the ages of the children involved. As with marriages in Bel Air, you have to feed your wedding guests -- and give them water, precious water.

I asked Harjiram what he thought of those who say he should wait until his children are 18 to be married and have children. Did he know there were the health risks associated with early pregnancy?

"We don't recognize the state or its ideas in this matter," he said. The group of onlookers nodded their approval.

"Our girls are stronger than city girls, who just watch TV," he said. "They have so much physical labor that their bodies can have children at any age. Sometimes the child is stronger the younger the mother."

According to the UN, maternal mortality is 25 times higher for girls under 15, and twice as high for those between 15 and 19. Seven thousand Indian teenage girls die from complications involving early pregnancy every year, while one million infants born to child mothers never reach their first birthday.

As I considered these numbers, Harijam continued.

"The government can't protect our girls' safety and honor. Marriage gives them protection from attack when they visit a distant well or gather wood. Look at all this open space," he said, waving a hand out toward the expanse behind him.

"Marriage must be dealt with inside communities," he said. "Man to man, father to father."

"Suppose we did wait until they were 18, like your culture does," he asked me. "Would that guarantee matrimonial strength? We know all about your divorce and immorality!"

As the men erupted in cheers and laughter, Harijam did something surprising. He turned around and gave his friend a high-five. The high-five is universal -- who knew!

After our interview, Vinod and I bought a plate of onions cooked in heavy oil and drank Harijam's sweet tea. We were invited to that night's child wedding ceremony, but I couldn't afford to keep the rented car and driver overnight, so declined.

Vinod later informed me that the man to the right of Harjiram was the local revenue collector, who planned to attend the celebration as a guest. This, despite a national law requiring all state employees to inform central authorities of child marriage ceremonies in their jurisdiction.

Back in Delhi, I called Dr. Sunil Mehra, director of MAMTA -- Health Institute for Mother and Child, a New Delhi-based NGO that works around the issue of early marriage. His organization currently leads the charge against the practice, and has partner NGO's in Rajasthan that educate villagers.

"For girls, adolescent marriage is child labor in its worse form," Mehra said. "It is a violation of human and child rights as defined in numerous conventions to which India is a signatory. When children are forced to marry, it has strong negative intergenerational effects, passing on poverty, malnutrition, and illiteracy. A host of development issues would be cured by ending the practice. From an economic perspective, the loss in human capital is enormous."

Framing child marriage in economic terms like "human capital" is a smart strategy in today's India, if you want anyone to pay attention to you.

First among the social evils spawned by child marriage, say critics, is the forced termination of female education. When a young bride moves into her husband's home, she is expected to assume full domestic duties, including the production of children (preferably sons) as soon as she is physically able.

"When girls under 18 have children, the chance of low birth weight is 30 to 40 percent higher than if they waited until 18," said Mehra. "Small mothers produce small children."

I asked if there were any signs of a shift visible as a result of work by groups like MAMTA. He said that there were.

In the village of Gotor, in north Rajasthan's Sawai Madhopur district, a wedding was stopped when a community elder named Morpal, after consultations with local NGO field workers, intervened to cancel the long-planned marriage of his 11-year-old daughter. When others in the community challenged him to explain the unprecedented insult, he convinced four other fathers to postpone the marriages of their own children.

"When an earthen pot is made, it's raw mud," said Gotor, explaining his change of heart by way of an analogy. "It is burned in the kiln only after the final shape is given. Young people are mud that hasn't been fired yet. They need to grow up first."

Some Rajasthani girls are starting to express even stronger thoughts on their roles in the social order. One adolescent girl in Gotor, aged 10, told a field worker from Jodhpur: "The world has changed. A girl's life is not only about getting married and becoming a mother. It's about much more than that."

But unless Rajasthan sees some development, there isn't much to turn to outside a hard village life not much different from the one lived ten generations ago.

"There's no industry, no economy, and few education options," said Vinod. "Child wife or whore -- what kind of choice is that?"

This article first appeared in the eXile.

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