They have altered the tradition to keep the social ill going.
Akha Teej, or Akshaya Tritya, an auspicious day in Hindu calendar, was the chosen day for child marriages in Rajasthan. A revised law and a watchful administration have seen fewer children, some as young as one, being married off on the day, but underage marriages are rampant across the state (see box).
Two years after the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 was notified, fewer marriages are solemnised on the day.
Villagers lie low to avoid trouble. “The marriages are held at hidden locations,” an official of the department of women and child development, who didn’t wish to be identified, said.
In rural areas, thrust is now on convenience, not auspicious date. “People know that the administration keeps a vigil on this day. So, they’ve changed their way of carrying on the tradition,” said Ratna Gaikwad of Mamta Health Institute for Mother and Child, an NGO in Jaipur. Akha Teej falls during the wedding season, April-June, every year. It was on April 27 this time. Anytime of the day is considered auspicious for a wedding.
“Even political leaders support these marriages, more so during the time of elections,” said Gaikwad.
Caution is the watchword. No invitations are sent out; instead wedding cards announce the wedding of an elder brother or sister, who is a major.
“But in the same mandap (area in which the wedding rituals are performed), they often get the younger one also married off, even if he or she is only a year old,” said Chajju Ram Jat, a social worker in Rainwal, a village 30 km away from Jaipur.
“I’ll save money if I can marry off all my daughters in the same mandap. We can’t afford a separate one for each,” said Hanuman Jat, a villager in the Tonk district.
Unless issues like gender norms and livelihood were addressed, the practice will continue, said Sreela Das Gupta of the International Centre for Research on Women.
“It is essential that the community and its leaders support the campaign against child marriage,” said Samuel Mawunganidze, Unicef’s Rajasthan chief.