Child marriage: an outlawed practice lives on in provincial India

Dressed in festive wedding raiment, the bride and groom peer solemnly into the camera as their proud parents beam in the background. It would be the conventional Indian wedding photograph except for the difference that has splashed it onto newspaper pages throughout the country: The wide-eyed groom is 10 years old, the bride at his side only 7.

It is India's auspicious season for child marriages, a practice deplored by social reformers and theoretically outlawed by national legislation but practiced with relish in rural areas.

Child marriage in India is a matter of custom and tradition. Parents have a duty to marry off their children properly, and that means getting it done early to snare the best catch possible within one's caste and community.

For city intelligentsia, who normally shrug off child marriage as the quaint tradition of simple village folk, there is an added fillip this year. In two delectable scandals being much discussed by editorial writers, high government officials have been found marrying off their underage children in extravagant ceremonies.

In one, the minister for mines in Rajasthan State married his 13-year-old daughter to a lad of equal age at a wedding attended by high state officials and politicians recently. And hitting the front page a few days later was the news that the Madhya Pradesh State governor's mansion -- with the state's chief minister in attendance.

The legal marriage age in India is 18 for girls and 21 for boys. Both the Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh state governments have been conspicuously silent on whether the offending fathers will be prosecuted.

He didn't really want to do it, Rajasthan Mines Minister Nana Lal explained later, but he bowed to the wishes of his own parents, who wanted his 13-year-old daughter wed.

"It is this kind of convoluted logic enunciated by those who should know better which is behind the nonimplementation of much of our social reforms legislation," commented the Hindustan Times of Lal's "brazen violation" of marriage age laws.

"What hope can a law have if ministers set the kind of example as the one reported from Rajasthan?" asked the Statesman in an editorial headlined "Hypocrisy in high places."

Rajasthan chief minister Jagannath Pahadia, commenting on the wedding of the mines minister's daughter, said he was against child marriage but added, "While considering the specific law, we should also consider the customary law." He revealed that he himself was not only married under age -- but was betrothed even before he was born.

Meanwhile, Indian news reports related that up to 10,000 child marriages -- including weddings of infants and toddlers -- have been solemnized in the last few weeks in Rajasthan, one of India's poorer and more tradition-bound states.

The impetus is the auspicious "teej" season during which village elders rather than priests can perform the wedding rites -- thereby saving poor parents the expense of costly priests' fees for marrying their children.

With yet another propitious marriage date coming up in early June, Indian Home Minister Zail Singh has offered to send as large a police force as Rajasthan wishes "to eradicate and prevent this evil."

After most child marriages, little brides and grooms go home with their parents and are not united as couples until they reach about 15 or 16. Even so, Indian officialdom is concerned about child marriage on several scores.

Since the proof of a young village bride's measure is her ability to produce sons, the midteen wives begin bearing children earlier than they would if married at the legal age of 18.

Their head start on childbearing contributes to India's soaring population, a subject of deep official worry lately in the wake of census results showing virtually no letup in population growth over the last 10 years. Rigorous enforcement of the marriage age laws is essential to India's family planning efforts, Indian Health and Family Welfare Minister B. Shankaranand told a national parliamentary conference on population problems recently.

Health officials also maintain that immature mothers produce a disproportionate share of weak, stunted babies and drive up the country's high infant and material mortality rates.

The dimensions of India's child marriage problem are illustrated in a recent study of weddings that took place in 1971 in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. A Lucknow University scholar found that 51.5 percent of all brides married that year were under the age of 15. A link between poverty and early marriage was underscored by the finding that only 22 percent of the new wives were 14 and younger. But in the poorest, least developed districts, up to 80 perce nt of the brides were below 15.

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