It might be illegal to marry off children, but parents in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan do it with gay abandon. And on some auspicious days hundreds of marriages are solemnized.
Like on the Akha Teej falling Thursday. The state authorities claim to be persistently trying to contain child marriages for a long time now, but non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such efforts have been in vain. Or, to put it bluntly, no government has had the political will to contain the scourge.
Every year, large-scale child marriages take place on Akshaya Tritiya in the rural areas of the state, especially among the tribals. Districts like Kota, Jhalawar, Barmer, Chittorgarh and Dungarpur are infamous for witnessing child marriages in massive scale. Though the official figures are quite low, according to the NGOs, over 60% of the girls in the state are married off before they turn 18.
A 1993 survey says that out of the 5,000 women studied in Rajasthan, 56% had already entered into wedlock before the age of 15 while 17% of them were married off before they could attain 10. According to a more recent one, by UNICEF, as many as 82% of girls in Rajasthan get married by the age of 18.
The National Family Health Survey-3 (NFHS-3) also suggests that more than 50 per cent girls in the state become mothers by the age of 19. Rajasthan tops the list in the country with the average age of a girl at marriage being 16.6 years, closely followed by Bihar (17.2 years) and Madhya Pradesh (17 years).
A majority of the weddings are held during the 'abuj sava', which is considered as the most auspicious time to tie the knot and continues from Akshaya Tritiya to the next full day. "Initially, most child marriages were held on the Akshaya Tritiya day only but now that the state authorities are on high alert on that day, most of the marriages are solemnised anytime within the fortnight,'' says Manjula Joshi of the Haduti Shilp, an NGO based in Kota.
According to Joshi, as many as 35 child marriages are held in each of the 5,000 gram panchayats of Kota during this time. "The state authorities randomly collect figures of the child marriages organised on Akshay Tritiya and quote a much lower figure than actual," she claims, adding that child marriages are closely linked to lack of education and poverty. Most parents try to get all their daughter girls married simultaneously whatever their age.
The situation is equally bad in Ajmer where, according to rough estimates, over 60% of the girls below 10 are married off in Pisangan, Masuda, Bhinai and the interior areas of Shrinagar villages.