In a dusty village in the northwest Indian state of Gujarat last month, eight young brides, veiled in bright pink or red saris that covered their faces, took seats beside their grooms-to-be. Some were older men dressed in turbans with swords, others, like their brides to be, were just barely adults. Across the makeshift wedding hall—basically a large tent of mismatched fabrics—sat a row of 12 even younger couples, ranging in age from about 10 to 14, and one girl who was only 8. Before a crowd of about 2,000 guests who came from all over India for the historic event, these fresh-faced couples exchanged promise rings and an unspoken vow to love and protect each other as soon as they became of age. But, judging by their downcast eyes and awkward glances, these prepubescents would have rather called cooties on the opposite sex.
This scene seems like just the latest alarming incident in the country’s long and alarming history of condoning such marriages. India accounts for more than 40 percent of the world’s child-marriage cases, according to a recent UNICEF report. But, this wedding and betrothal ceremony is actually a welcome event. That’s because these girls are the youngest generation of the Saraniya community, a nomadic Indian tribe that had once traveled with the Maharaja, where the men had sharpened swords and made weaponry while the women had "entertained” the troops. When India achieved independence in 1947, the Saraniyas found themselves out of work, and for lack of options, returned to prostitution as a means to support their community.
Over time the community became dependent on the income from prostitution. Although the government had allotted the Saraniyas some land, the former entertainers didn’t know much about farming, especially daunting on land without water, working wells, or any sort of irrigation facilities. Faced with a drought and no work, the number of sex workers pushed into the hundreds as villagers recruited new girls into its fold at age 10 or 12. “If a daughter is not engaged or married by the time she’s 10 years old, she’ll be pushed into the flesh trade,” says Mittal Patel, secretary of Vicharta Samuday Samarthan Manch, an Ahmedabad-based NGO that works in the community. Often it’s the mothers who did the pushing, as the families were desperate for some income.
Patel first visited Vadia in 2006 and got to work making basic interventions on behalf of the villagers, petitioning the government to follow up on some of its empty promises of roads, houses, potable water, irrigation facilities, education, and new jobs, while helping the women qualify for certain government programs. While doing so, she noticed an interesting caveat—girls who were engaged or married were considered “hands-off” and managed to avoid joining the unmarried women in the village business.
Hence, the idea of a mass marriage, a common, cost-effective way to marry brides in rural India. The final hurdle was finding grooms. Men were not keen to marry Saraniyan girls, given their reputations. Even if they were virgins, they were considered tainted because their relatives might have been prostitutes. The NGO would not admit this, but it’s likely that offering a dowry, an illegal but still popular notion that involves the bride bringing money and expensive gifts to the groom’s family, may have won the men over.
Not everyone was happy about the idea, specifically the pimps used to making easy money off the girls. The pimps charge anywhere from 500-1000 rupees ($10 to $20) per night for a woman age 12 to20, according to Raju, a project manager at VSSM. Women older than 20, considered to be a ripe age, earn less. Since only 100 to 150 rupees ($2to $3) goes to the girl herself, the women are forced to borrow money, at high interest, from the pimps to make ends meet, hence a vicious cycle of sex and money-lending that’s basically impossible to escape. “People think that they are in the flesh trade, so they must be getting a handsome income,” says Patel. “But the truth is that they don’t even have [new] clothes, or basic amenities such as roads, houses, and water.”
As VSSM moved forward with the planning, the pimps threatened not just the organizers, but also the brides-to-be. Eight of the women backed out of the wedding altogether. But the majority of girls still chose to go through with the marriages, bolstered by various education and vocational outreach programs in the area, including a three-month embroidery course that VSSM runs in Vadia encouraging the girls to make crafts they can sell. Hemi, one of the brides married over the weekend, has an elder sister in the sex trade, Patel tells us. "But after studying and taking part in some of our programs, she said she didn’t want to be a prostitute.”
On Sunday, March 11, 2012, Hemi married a young man from Dideda, a neighboring village, and made plans to move in with his family. The wedding procession of village drummers and dancers gathered outside her house, a 10-foot by 10-foot straw-thatched hut shared with her mother and siblings, creating a festive mood. Yet Hemi, draped in an oversized sari that hides downcast eyes and henna-clad hands gripped nervously in her lap, suggests she did not look as pleased about the big day.
The organizers told reporters that Hemi was 22. Her brother Jagdish, who I met outside the family hut, told me she was 25. But despite the heavy rouge painted onto her childlike features, she did not look a day over 12 to me. Organizers did their best to keep contact between the brides and the media to a minimum, possibly because the brides were not quite 18. Clearly they wanted to sidestep the issue, for the greater good of getting the girls married and safely away from the pimps. For locals, sadly, her real age would not come as much of a shock anyway. In this area, child marriages are quite common, and an annual report recently published by UNICEF, states that 47 percent of women in Indian villages are married before they turn 18.
The sad fact is that in India, where a cocktail of female infanticide, dowry deaths, trafficking and domestic violence creates a toxic environment for women (the world’s fourth most dangerous country for women, in fact, after Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Pakistan, according to Thompson Reuters foundation) social progress requires some Machiavellian thinking. Here girls are considered a disappointment from the minute they are born, if they are born at all—2011 census results revealed that India is missing around 50 million women, according to estimates by the U.N. Population Fund, the result of a long-standing preference for sons and widely available technology like sonograms that make it easy for parents to abort girls. After their birth, things don’t get much better; girls are fed less than their brothers, taken to the doctor less frequently when they’re sick, left out of school and basically treated as a financial liability until they marry into a different household. The new bride is then expected to cook, clean, and bear sons.
Yet, in a world of bad choices, breaking the rules to allow the lesser of two evils—in this case, child marriage as opposed to prostitution—still makes sense. None of today’s brides will likely remember the wedding as the happiest day of her life; few women in rural India do. Nor will the ceremony erase the social stigma that’s overshadowed her entire life and will continue to do so, or offer much autonomy in her new one. Still for a Saraniyan women, marrying young to break the cycle of prostitution is a step in the right direction, despite its ominous undertones, and much better than the alternative.