heyOn a sunny November afternoon in Banjaras, a tribal hamlet in Rajasthan’s Alwar district, 17-year-old Puja Banjara smiled when asked what she wanted to be in life. Sitting on a cot laid out on the mud verandah of her brick house, she picks up her cell phone and shows her WhatsApp profile picture, that of an actor dressed as a policeman. That’s not a far cry for a resident of Nimdi village, who has overcame tremendous social pressure to stop marrying three times at the ages of nine, 12 and 17.
“I was about nine years old when my family first arranged my marriage,” says Pooja, who recently joined a local school run by an NGO. He confided in his teacher and the marriage was called off at the last minute. His 12-year-old sister had no such luck as she was considered “old enough” to marry.
Two months ago, when the COVID-19 restrictions were eased in the state, a groom’s family from Dausa, whom Puja had earlier rejected, returned to offer her hand in marriage. But she was adamant and pushed them away again.
The financial crisis caused by the closure of businesses and loss of employment during the lockdown imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19 over the past two years has resulted in child marriage in Rajasthan, where social maladjustment is culturally endemic. Is. Government figures show that 1,216 child marriages have taken place in the state since 2018-19. Although 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 economic hardship induced by the pandemic could roll back the gains made so far. .
Sardarji, The chief Heads of 54 Banjara families of Nimdi village with their families. , Photo Credit: Krishnan VV
bride price and heavy fine
Back in Nimdi village, Pooja’s grandmother Abli’s wrinkled face is wrinkly with worry. They worry about “who will pay for the financial loss [of calling off the wedding]as the practice of ChariThe practice, in which the bridegroom’s family pays the 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, she has to pay a heavy fine to the groom.
Sardarji, The chief (head) confirms the prevalence of child marriage in the 54 Banjara families of the village and Chari In some communities in rural Rajasthan. He himself was just 17 when he married Kamala, who was barely 11. Now, he is facing the daunting challenge of paying a fine of around ₹3 lakh-₹5 lakh for canceling the engagement of his 16-year-old daughter Akash. The feisty girl, the second of Sardarji’s seven daughters, refused to bow to the pressure and declared that she would agree to the marriage only after fulfilling her long-cherished desire of becoming a teacher.
‘Marriage: The easy way out of trouble’
Manish Sharma, director of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, an NGO working to protect child rights in Jaipur and its surrounding districts, says some marginalized communities see marriage as an easy way out of trouble. With bridegrooms offering up to ₹ 5 lakh as bride price, families get their daughters married so that they can overcome their financial crunch. According to the NGO, she saved 382 girls from child marriage in the state in 2020-21.
“There have been many cases of families promising girls in marriage to solve their economic problems during the pandemic. The groom’s family will agree to the wedding once the Covid restrictions are lifted,” says Mr. Sharma.
NGO Bal Ashram Trust says it has rescued seven girls from child marriage since the pandemic broke out from Nimdi, Bairavas and Ghadiya Johar villages in Alwar and Jaipur districts.
A social worker in Jaipur, who did not wish to be named as he has been part of raids to rescue girls, says the lockdown has 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 in marriage when restrictions were eased.
Students returning home after school in Biratnagar. , Photo Credit: Krishnan VV
Many times the mystery remains about the children given in marriage. 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 after media reports that girls were being sold on stamp paper to pay off debts may be paid. Khap Panchayat is in Pander village of Bhilwara district.
About 10 km from Pander, Yadlal Meena, a journalist-turned-teacher, displays a list of 25 girls who did not turn up at the Itunda Girls Higher Secondary School when it reopened after it was closed. “Many of them belong to the backward Kanjar community and we went to their homes in search of them. Most of the families told us that the girls had gone to their relatives’ place,” he says.
When a fact finding team of NCPCR along with police and state officials visited Itunda and its nearby villages, some families accompanied these girls to the police station. Despite this, none of them have returned to school.
Dayaram cites the case of another teacher, Sania (name changed), who was “the brightest student in the school”. When she passed eighth grade, her family pressured her to marry, but the school discouraged such attempts. The teachers lost contact with him when the school was closed for two years due to Covid. Then they went to her house in ‘Kanjar Basti’ when classes resumed and learned that she was married.
A teacher at Itunda’s school, speaking on condition of anonymity, says school authorities have no means of verifying whether the missing girls are being sold or forced into prostitution. She says families protest strongly when teachers approach them to trace their children. “If you are not with the police, there is a risk of physical harm. Members of the community live in congested neighborhoods and often become aggressive,” she says.
The Jaipur-based social worker, who has accompanied the police in several rescue operations, recalls an incident in Bhilwara district, when she was chased away by members of the community. “The way their houses are built, it is easy for them to hide their chicks during raids,” he says.
Pappuram Jangid of the Badai (carpenter) community at his home in Hinsla village. , Photo Credit: Krishnan VV
customs with widespread social acceptance
data accessed by Hindu District officials reveal that 69 child marriages were halted 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 getting child marriages annulled for the first time in the district, says the practice is culturally endemic in many communities. “The age-old customs have gained such social acceptance that most people, including the administration, look the other way,” says Dr Trivedi.
to like ChariAnother practice widely practiced in the rural parts of the state is Dough-hauntingIn which two families agree to marry their daughters. 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 on wedding costs. Often, families honor the deal even if the girl is underage. mismatch Or marriages between couples with a large age difference, with the girl often being younger, is also a common practice and involves the payment of a bride price. Marriage rituals of minor girls are performed in many villages death food, A feast in honor of the dead, in which the bereaved family has to feed not only relatives and residents of their own village but also people from neighboring villages. An FIR was registered in 2016 on the basis of a complaint by the Child Welfare Committee when five sisters were married during one. death food The incident is of Asind-Kareda area of Bhilwara district.
reducing the financial burden of weddings
Another practice that is widely practiced is the marriage of all the daughters of one family to the sons of another family, says Pappuram Jangid, who belongs to the Badai (carpenter) community and lives in Hinsla, barely a kilometer from Nimdi. Live in a better furnished house in the village. Village Raj Nagar.
Mr. Jangid’s improved economic condition did not deter him from arranging the marriages of his daughters to two brothers from other families. His younger daughter Payal, then 12 years old, rebelled and persuaded him to break off the marriage. She is now preparing for Rajasthan Administrative Services Exam in Jaipur. According to Mr. Jangid, such customs still exist because they help save on the cost of marriage and sometimes avoid dowry.
Payal says that in such marriages usually the elder sister is above 18 years of age and the ceremony is announced and wedding cards are printed in her name. Young girls are married a day before or separately on the same day.
According to UNFPA, child marriage is closely linked to the economic status of a community. National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-21) data shows variation in child marriage according to household wealth index. 40% of girls from the lowest wealth quintile were married before age 18, while just 8% from the highest quintile were married.
Girl students of Girls Senior Secondary School located in Itunda village. , Photo Credit: Krishnan VV
This stark distinction becomes apparent when traveling through villages in Rajasthan dominated by the Meena community, classified as a Scheduled Tribe. Barely 300 meters before Itunda is Lohar Kalan village. The Higher Secondary School here tells the story of empowerment of girls. There is almost no dropout and many girls are also pursuing courses in agriculture and science in nearby secondary schools.
“An important reason behind girls not getting an education is that almost every Meena family has a member in the army or police force. This financial security has made their education possible in many ways,” says RK Meena, a teacher at the higher secondary school in Lohar Kalan.
Communities like the Banjaras live in extreme poverty as they are unable to compete for the benefits of reservation. They are classified as Other Backward Classes in both the central and state lists, sharing space with major, upwardly mobile caste groups such as Gujjars and Jats. Most members of the Banjara and Kanjar communities do not even have basic identity documents such as Aadhaar and employment cards, which are essential to access the benefits of government schemes.
A social worker from Bhilwara says getting children from the Kanjar community to school is a difficult task as their parents do not have birth certificates and identity cards like Aadhaar cards. According to activists, the only way to stop child marriage in marginalized communities of society is by improving their economic and educational status.