On a sunny November afternoon in Banjaras, a tribal hamlet in Rajasthan’s Alwar district, 17-year-old Pooja Banjara sports a smile when asked what she aspires to be in life. Seated on a cot laid out on the mud porch of her brick house, she picks up her cell phone and reveals her WhatsApp profile picture, in which an actor is dressed up as a policewoman. It is not a far-fetched ambition for the resident of Nimdi village who has overcome tremendous social pressure to fend off marriage thrice: at the age of nine, 12 and 17.
“I was just around nine years old when my family fixed my marriage for the first time,” says Pooja, who recently enrolled herself in a local school run by an NGO. She confided in her teacher and the marriage was called off at the last moment. Her 12-year-old sister had no such luck as she was considered “old enough” to be married.
Two months ago, when COVID-19 restrictions were relaxed in the State, the family of a groom from Dausa, whom Pooja had rejected earlier, returned, seeking her hand in marriage. But she stood her ground and turned them away again.
Financial distress triggered by the closure of businesses and loss of employment during lockdowns imposed to check the spread of COVID-19 over the past two years has resulted in child marriage rearing its ugly head in Rajasthan, where the social malaise is culturally endemic. Government data show that the State has witnessed 1,216 child marriages since 2018-19. Though the country has seen a steady decline in the prevalence of the practice from 47.4% in 2005 to 23.3% in 2021, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has warned that pandemic-induced economic hardship could roll back the gains made so far.
Bride price and hefty fines
Back in Nimdi village, Pooja’s grandmother, Aabli, has worry etched on her wrinkled face. She is concerned about “who will account for the financial loss [of calling off the wedding]” as the practice of Chari, in which the groom’s family pays a bride price, is prevalent in their Banjara community, one of the most backward groups in the country. If the bride’s family cancels the marriage, then it has to pay a hefty fine to the groom.
Sardarji, the mukhiya (head) of the 54 Banjara families in the village, confirms the prevalence of child marriage and Chari in certain communities in rural Rajasthan. He himself was just 17 when he married Kamala, who was barely 11. Now, he faces the onerous task of paying a fine of around ₹3 lakh-₹5 lakh for cancelling the engagement of his 16-year-old daughter, Aakash. The feisty girl, the second among Sardarji’s seven daughters, refused to succumb to pressure and declared that she would agree for marriage only after fulfilling her long-cherished desire of becoming a teacher.
‘Marriage: an easy way out of crisis’
Manish Sharma, director of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, an NGO that works to defend child rights in Jaipur and its surrounding districts, says certain marginalised communities view marriage as an easy way out of a crisis. With grooms offering up to ₹5 lakh as bride price, families marry off their daughters to tide over their financial woes. According to the NGO, it rescued 382 girls from child marriage in the State in 2020-21.
“We have come across many cases of families promising girls in marriage during the pandemic to resolve their economic problems. The groom’s family would agree to solemnise the marriage when COVID curbs were lifted,” Mr. Sharma says.
NGO Bal Ashram Trust says it has rescued seven girls from child marriage since the outbreak of the pandemic from Nimdi, Bairawas and Ghadia Johad villages in Alwar and Jaipur districts.
A social worker in Jaipur, who did not wish to be named as he has been a part of raids to rescue girls, says the lockdowns resulted in “child marriage agents” becoming active in and around the district. Many of them even paid an advance to the bride’s family and promised to take the girl for marriage when restrictions were relaxed.
The missing girls
Many a time, the whereabouts of children given in marriage remain a mystery. Last month, the National Commission for Women and the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) launched a probe into child trafficking and prostitution in rural Rajasthan following media reports about girls being sold on stamp paper to settle debts based on the orders of a khap panchayat in Pander village in Bhilwara district.
Around 10 km away from Pander, Yadlal Meena, a journalist-turned-teacher, displays a list of 25 girls who did not turn up at Itunda Girls Higher Secondary School when it reopened after lockdown. “Many of them belong to the backward Kanjar community and we went to their houses in search of them. Most families told us that the girls were away with their relatives,” he says.
When a fact-finding team of the NCPCR visited Itunda and its neighbouring villages along with the police and State officials, a few families turned up at the police station along with these girls. Yet, none of them has returned to school.
Dayaram, another teacher, cites the case of Sania (name changed), who was “the most brilliant student of the school”. When she cleared Class VIII, her family pressured her to get married, but the school thwarted such attempts. During the two-year closure of schools owing to COVID, the teachers lost touch with her. They then visited her house in ‘Kanjar basti’ when classes resumed and learnt that she had been married off.
A teacher at the school in Itunda, on condition of anonymity, says school authorities have no means of verifying if the missing girls are being sold or pushed into prostitution. She says families put up stiff resistance when teachers approach them seeking the whereabouts of their children. “If you are not accompanied by the police, there is threat of physical harm. The community members live in congested hamlets and often turn aggressive,” she says.
The social worker from Jaipur, who has accompanied the police on several rescue missions, recalls an incident in Bhilwara district when they were chased away by the community members. “The way their houses are built, it is easy for them to hide their girls during raids,” he says.
Customs with wide social acceptance
Data accessed by The Hindu from the district authorities show that 69 child marriages were stopped in Bhilwara from 2020 till November this year. Dr. Suman Trivedi, former chairperson of the Bhilwara Child Welfare Committee and judicial member of the Permanent Lok Adalat, who was instrumental in one of the first annulments of child marriage in the district, says the practice is culturally endemic in many communities. “There is so much social acceptance of age-old customs that most people, including the administration, look the other way,” Dr. Trivedi says.
Like Chari, another custom widely practised in rural parts of the State is Aata-Sata, in which two families agree on giving their respective daughters in marriage. In other words, the husband’s sister marries the wife’s brother. The custom guarantees a bride in areas with skewed sex ratios and helps save wedding costs. Often, families honour the deal even if a girl is underage. Be-mel or marriages between couples with huge age difference, with mostly the girl being underage, is also a common practice and involves payment of bride price. In many villages, the marriage of minor girls is solemnised on the sidelines of Maut Ka Khana, a feast in honour of the dead, in which the bereaved family has to provide food not only to relatives and residents of their village but also to people in the adjoining villages. In 2016, an FIR was lodged based on a complaint by the Child Welfare Committee after the marriage of five sisters was held during a Maut Ka Khana event in Asind-Kareda area of Bhilwara district.
Reducing financial burden of weddings
Another practice that is widely prevalent is marrying off all daughters of a family to the sons of another family, says Pappuram Jangid, who belongs to the Badai (carpenter) community and lives in a better furnished house at Hinsla village, barely a kilometre from Nimdi village.
Mr. Jangid’s improved financial condition did not prevent him from fixing the marriage of his daughters to two brothers of another family. His younger daughter Payal, then aged 12, rebelled and convinced him to call off the marriage. She is now preparing for the Rajasthan Administrative Services exam in Jaipur. According to Mr. Jangid, such customs continue to exist as they help save wedding costs and sometimes even avoid dowry.
Payal says in such marriages, the elder sister is usually above 18 years and the ceremony is announced and wedding cards are printed in her name. The underage girls are married off a day earlier or separately the same day.
According to the UNFPA, child marriage is deeply linked to the economic status of a community. Data from the National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-21) show variations in child marriage in accordance with the household wealth index. A staggering 40% of girls from the lowest wealth quintile were married before 18 years compared with just 8% from the highest quintile.
This clear-cut contrast is evident as one travels through villages dominated by the Meena community, which is classified as a Scheduled Tribe in Rajasthan. Barely 300 metres before Itunda lies Lohar Kalan village. The higher secondary school for girls here tells a story of empowerment. There are almost no dropouts and many girls are also pursuing courses in agriculture and the sciences in nearby secondary schools.
“An important reason behind girls pursuing education is that almost every Meena family has a member either in the Army or in the police force. This financial security has made their education possible in many ways,” says R.K. Meena, a teacher at the higher secondary school in Lohar Kalan.
Communities like the Banjaras remain in extreme poverty as they are unable to compete for the benefits of reservation. They are classified as Other Backward Classes in both Central and State lists, sharing space with dominant, upwardly mobile caste groups like Gujjars and Jats. Most members of the Banjara and Kanjar communities lack even basic identification documents such as Aadhaar and employment cards that are required to access the benefits of government schemes.
A social worker in Bhilwara says enrolling children from the Kanjar community in school is a difficult task as their parents do not have identification documents like birth certificates and Aadhaar cards. According to activists, the only way to stop child marriages in communities that are on the margins of society is by improving their economic and educational status.