Libmonster ID: U.S.-1436
Author(s) of the publication: I. LAPTEVA

India is one of the few countries in the world where child marriage is practiced. The government and civil society organizations vainly urge Hindus to abandon this archaic tradition.

In 2006, the Hindu festival of Akshaya Tritiya fell on April 30. It is revered as a day of beginnings and renewal. It is believed that at this time, the supreme god Vishnu fulfills any requests of believers. Newlyweds enjoy special patronage of the celestial. Therefore, it is customary to play weddings on Akshaya Tritiya.


When the Russian traveler and artist Prince A. Saltykov landed in the port of Bombay, he was struck by the large number of young brides and grooms. In his first letter from India, dated March 18, 1841, he writes:: "When you walk through the streets, you often see lattice buildings with a lot of candles burning in them: these are Indian temples where they perform wedding ceremonies: they marry ten or twelve-year-old boys to five or six-year-old girls. The bride and groom are almost naked, but hung with rings, necklaces, smeared with yellow paint, surrounded by many people. They are washed and then painted again, and this goes on continuously for three or four days, with the sound of drums and violins, day and night, and surpasses any description. " 1

Over time, wedding rituals in India have changed. However, children's marriages are still arranged by their parents. It happens that the bride and groom see each other for the first time during the betrothal. They do not remember the names of their betrothed and are not always clearly aware of what is happening around them.

On Akshaya Tritiya, the streets of towns and villages are filled with noisy wedding processions. At the head of each is a car, where the boy-groom, dressed up like a prince, is sitting. In the old days, he was supposed to arrive at the bride's house on an elephant or at least a horse. Modern parents prefer to rent jeeps. They are so densely covered with flower garlands that they look like mobile flower beds.

The groom tries to imitate adults and frowns in displeasure. He looks enviously at his friends, who run after the procession, point their fingers at the hero of the day, whistle and shout insulting taunts. Some of the boy grooms are dressed in light European-style suits. Others wore shirts and trousers made by local tailors. The richest wear long white coats embroidered with sequins. But each groom always has a large, intricately twisted turban on his head, to which a large brooch with a fake ruby or emerald is pinned. Headdresses, which range in color from bright pink to crimson-red, are decorated with plumes of feathers and colorful beads. Around the neck of the young grooms - garlands of shiny tinsel, flowers and banknotes in denominations of 10 rupees.

Girls-brides-in red festive saris. The gold-embroidered edge of the sari is draped over the bride's head and almost completely hides her face. A child's frightened eyes are visible through the thin fabric. The bride's arms and legs are tattooed with mehendi - henna patterns. There is a belief that the brighter their color, the deeper the love between the spouses will be.

During the performance of wedding ceremonies, the bride and groom sit on a special platform under a canopy with tassels. If the children are very small, the mothers hold them in their arms. Then the edges of the newlyweds ' clothing are tied with a strong knot, which symbolizes the strength of the union. While singing religious hymns, they walk around the sacred fire.

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The boy always leads the way. Behind him, a young bride minces along, her head bowed low and her long clothes tangled in a tangle. After that, the "seven steps" (saptapadi) ceremony is performed. The marriage is concluded. If the minor spouse dies, his wife will remain a widow. Even these days, it's almost impossible for her to get married again. This is the tradition.

In the biography of many famous Indians, there is a dark spot of early marriage. The leader of the liberation struggle Mahatma Gandhi and the first President of the Republic of India, Rajendra Prasad, married their peers at the age of 13. C. Rajagopalachari, the future Governor-General of the Dominion of the Indian Union, married a distant relative of ten years old. The young husband then turned 20. This was the last will of his devout mother.

According to Mahatma Gandhi himself, he did not expect anything from his marriage except new clothes, drumming, luxury dinners and a strange girl for children's games. The boy simply could not imagine himself as a husband. "That first night! Two innocent children, thoughtlessly thrown into the ocean of life. My brother's wife carefully informed me how I should behave on my wedding night. I don't know who instructed my wife. I never asked her about it, and I don't intend to now. I can assure the reader that we were so nervous that we couldn't even look at each other. We were too timid, of course. How to talk to her, what to say? The instructions didn't go that far. Yes, they are not needed in such cases. The life impressions received by a person from early childhood are so strong that any teaching is unnecessary. Gradually, we began to get used to each other and talk freely," he writes in his autobiographical book "My Experiments with Truth", known in Russia as "My Life"2.

Rajendra Prasad's motorcade arrived at the bride's house in the dead of night. The groom was barely woken up by his parents. Throughout the wedding ceremony, the teenager made an effort not to fall asleep. He didn't remember the details of the ceremony. The couple only met on vacation. "At night, my mother would send a maid to wake me up, and she would take me to my wife's room. I had to return to my room before morning, when everyone was still asleep, " he said later on 3.

According to the existing rules, if a girl has not yet reached puberty at the time of marriage, she remains to live in her parents ' home. After the first menstruation and a second shortened wedding ceremony, the girl moves in with her spouse. However, these rules are not always followed. In May 2003. The Supreme Court of India has called the attention of the state Governments of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka to the fact that the territory entrusted to them violates legal regulations. In particular, the court's statement stated that " the average age of marriage is 12 years, and often the boy's family does not wait for the girl to reach puberty. After the wedding, the girl stops attending school and is used as a slave. She is often the victim of sexual harassment and rape committed by men in her husband's family. " 4


The tradition of child marriage originated in the subcontinent at the beginning of our era and became widespread in the Middle Ages. In ancient India, marriages were made between adult partners. At the same time, the main importance was attached to their ability to procreate. "Women are born for the sake of producing offspring. The woman is the field, the men are the owners of the seed. The field should be given to the one who has the seed. If you don't have a seed, you don't need a girl," says the Narada smriti, 5 a Sanskrit text that regulates the rules of proper behavior for Hindus.

During the period under review, child marriages took place, but they were quite rare. So, the heroine of the famous epic "Ramayana" Sita was only six when she was married to 16-year-old Rama. A number of researchers, however, consider these data not entirely reliable. They refer to the fact that the text of the Ramayana has been repeatedly revised.

In turn, the authors of ancient medical treatises pointed out the danger of such unions. "A man reaches his prime at the age of 25, and a girl at 16. If a man under the age of twenty-five cohabits with a girl under the age of sixteen, the fetus dies in the womb, and if a child is born, it will not live long or will be frail." 6

Many hypotheses have been put forward to explain the reasons for the emergence and establishment of the tradition of early marriage of Hindu girls. Modern Indian researcher Jaya Sagade, in his book "Child Marriages in India", published in 2005, connects them with the arrival of Muslim conquerors in the country in the XI century. Unmarried women were considered war booty. Therefore, fear for the fate of their daughters forced parents to arrange their future at the most tender age.

According to some Western scholars, the spread of child marriage was promoted by the increased sexuality inherent in Indians. Another French missionary, J. Dubois, who had preached in India since 1792 for more than 30 years, argued that Hindu women did not have the strength of mind to resist the fervent pleas of numerous seducers. They cannot resist the call of nature, and so parents have to be quick to hand them over "untouched" to their husbands.7 And for a girl who lost her virginity, marriage became impossible. The fate of a beggar or prostitute awaited her 8.

The famous Russian indologist E. Yurlova links the decline in the marriage age of Indian women with the exclusion of girls of the three highest varnas (brahmanas, kshatriyas and vaishyas) from the upanayana ritual*. He counted these children among them

* Upanayana is a Hindu discipleship initiation ritual available only to members of the upper classes.

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varnus referred to the "twice-born" and gave them the right to study sacred texts. Under the influence of Brahmanism, a religious teaching that predates Hinduism, education for women was generally considered superfluous. Thus, the wedding ceremony replaced the upanayana ritual. The husband becomes the supreme deity for the wife. The marriage was required to be concluded before the girl showed the first signs of puberty. If a brahmana married a girl over the age of ten, he was deprived of all class privileges. His fate was shared by the girl's father, who did not have time to marry off his daughter in time. The son born of such a woman defiled the sacred food offered to the ancestors.9

However, an adult girl could not obey the will of her parents and show independence in choosing a husband, which there are many examples in epic literature. For example, the heroine of the Mahabharata, Princess Savitri, the daughter of the Madra ruler Ashwapati, traveled all over the country until she met her future husband, the hermit's son, Satyavan. Damayanti, the princess of Vidarbha, preferred King Nishadhi-Nala to four candidates of divine origin.

In turn, the husband sought to completely subordinate the spouse to his will, which was more realistic until the girl reached a conscious age. Sacred traditions distinguish five suitable types of brides: 1) nagnika (naked), i.e. a girl under 8 years old; 2) Gauri (eight years old); 3) rohini (nine years old); 4) kanya (ten years old) and 5) rajaswala (over 10 years old). Nagnica was considered the best bride. According to the "Laws of Manu", in an ideal marriage, the age of the bride should be a third of the age of the groom, i.e. a man of 24 years old should marry an eight-year-old girl. Indian sages have stated that a woman can be innocent only before or immediately after birth. Sometimes the situation reached the point of absurdity. Marriage was performed when the bride, or even both spouses, were in the mother's womb.10

As for boys, they could marry at any time after performing the upanayana ritual, i.e. from the age of 8, or at the end of the apprenticeship period, usually at the age of 20.

Later, the custom of child marriage also spread to the lower castes, who in many ways sought to imitate the higher castes.


It is noteworthy that the British, who ruled India since 1757, for a long time preferred not to interfere with the traditional customs and rituals of Hindus. However, under pressure from Christian missionaries and Hindu reformers, in 1829 the British banned the barbaric practice of self-immolation of widows-sati. In 1831-1837. they broke up gangs of thaga stranglers, devout worshippers of the goddess Kali, who offered numerous human sacrifices at her altar. Then came the turn of child marriages. In 1860, the minimum age of sexual consent for a woman was set at 10 years. In 1881, he was promoted to 12 years, and in 1929 - to 14. But these decisions were rather advisory in nature.

A census conducted in 1921 recorded more than 600 brides between the ages of 1 and 12 months. Shocked by this, Mahatma Gandhi persuaded a prominent lawyer, Kharbilas Sharda, a member of the Viceroy's Central Legislative Council, to submit a bill to the legislature that would prevent early marriage in India. After much discussion, the "Law on the Restriction of Child Marriage", or "Sharda Law", came into force in 1929. It is noteworthy that the author himself got married at the age of 9.

After independence and the proclamation of the Republic of India, Indian lawmakers again returned to the problem of combating child marriage. In particular, in 1955 they adopted the "Hindu Marriage Act", according to which a marriage union with a woman at least 18 years of age is recognized as valid. On October 1, 1978, an important amendment was made to the" Law on the Restriction of Child Marriages " of 1929, setting the age of marriage for men at 21 and for women at 18. These age limits are-

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These restrictions are still in force in the country today.

Non-compliance with the law is prosecuted in criminal and administrative proceedings. Thus, Part 375 of the Indian Penal Code treats as rape intimate relations with a woman under the age of 16, committed with or without her consent. However, sexual intercourse between a man and his wife over the age of 15 does not qualify as rape. For violators of the "Law on Restriction of Child Marriages", the penalty is provided in the form of imprisonment for up to 3 months. The Hindu Marriage Act stipulates 15 days ' imprisonment or a fine of Rs 1,000 for both the husband and the parents of the minor bride and groom.

The "Law on Restriction of Child Marriages" in principle does not prevent their conclusion, since it does not declare such marriage unions illegitimate. According to the letter of the law, once a marriage is concluded, it becomes valid. Parents of children often use contradictions in the legislation to their advantage. Sometimes they arrange underage marriages on the eve or after Akshay Tritiya, when they are least likely to come to the attention of the authorities and public organizations. In addition, the "Hindu Marriage Act" does not apply to members of the so-called "registered tribes", 11 whose population, according to the 2001 census, is more than 84 million.

In 2005, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that outraged the Indian public and legislators. It stated that if a 15-year-old girl marries of her own free will, then such a marriage is considered valid. Brinda Karat, a member of the upper house of the Indian Parliament-the Council of States (Rajya Sabha), said that in this case, "the legislation is ridiculous and retrograde. It runs counter to the "Law on Restriction of Child Marriage" and is a step backwards. " 12

According to Indian media, 50% to 70% of Indian women marry before the age of 18. The national record is held by the state of Rajasthan, where the average age of brides is 15.8 years. 13 This is followed by the states of Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. According to the 2001 census, almost 3 million Indian women became mothers before the age of 15.14

The Central Government of India does not keep statistics on child marriages. According to Indian legal regulations, the State and Union Territory Governments are responsible for implementing laws relating to marital relations. Therefore, on March 17, 2005, before the start of the mass wedding season, the National Human Rights Commission urged local leaders to take effective measures to counteract underage marriages. Despite this, 24 child marriages were registered in Sarguja District of Chhattisgarh in April. Moreover, the State Minister for Tribal Affairs and the Chairman of the Sanskrit Council 15 were present as guests of honor at the wedding ceremony.


In modern India, the upper castes refrain from early marriage, primarily seeking to give their children a prestigious education. Any marriage advertisement in the relevant section of an Indian newspaper requires a good education from the potential bride or groom. But child marriages are actively practiced by representatives of the lower social strata and tribes.

By marrying off their daughters at a young age, parents reduce their maintenance costs. The groom's family, in turn, gets a free working unit on the farm. In large families, parents try to save money by marrying all their children at the same time. This tradition is supported by wealthy members of the-

page 73

rural communities, allocating funds from public funds for the organization of mass weddings.

The bride in India is a scarce commodity. Today, the country lacks 35 million representatives of the fair sex. According to the 2001 Census of India, there are 933 women per 1,000 males. Out of fear of leaving their son unmarried, parents deliberately violate the law.

The problem of child marriage is acute not only in the north of India, but also in the south. If in the north of the country marriages involving minors are mostly concluded on Akshaya Tritiya, in the south children's weddings are held at any time of the year. Muthamma from the village of Kottayur Kollai (Tamil Nadu) got married at the age of 10. By the age of 20, she had 5 surviving children. Her peer and fellow villager Malamma became a wife at the age of 12 and gave birth to six children. Gita was married at the age of 8. A year ago, when she turned 12, she lost a child. The baby lived only a week. 12-year-old Rani from the village of Thirthai married 14-year-old Shankar. Under pressure from the new local administration, which is zealously monitoring the implementation of the "Law on Restriction of Child Marriages", Shankar's parents were forced to send his wife back to her father. Relatives kicked the girl out on the street so that her shame associated with the return of a married woman to her native home would not fall on the rest of the family. Now Rani lives in an orphanage. Shankar says if his wife doesn't come back to him, he will remarry.

After the Hindu Marriage Act was passed in 1955 and divorce was allowed, many child marriages ended in divorce. After a divorce, women and their children return to their parents. Lakshmi, from Periamana Varanpalli village in Tamil Nadu, married a 27-year-old relative at the age of 15. A month later, her husband Laganappa divorced her and remarried. Lakshmi was his second wife. Her parents had to pay Rs 4,000 to the family of his first wife to get consent for a divorce. Lakshmi is considered an educated woman. She graduated from the 8th grade of the school. Lakshmi says that unlike other rejected wives, she is going to remarry if only there is a man willing to marry her.

Child marriage undoubtedly has a negative impact on the physical and moral health of young women. Obligatory companions of such marriage unions are early pregnancy, multiple complicated births in the absence of necessary medical care, inability to obtain secondary and higher education, high maternal and child mortality, complete economic dependence on the husband and his family, and sexual exploitation of women.

Since the return of the Indian National Congress party to power in May 2004, the local administration has become more active in opposing the practice of child marriage. In May 2005, the Rajasthan State Government managed to prevent 46 child marriages. In April 2006, 110 wedding ceremonies were canceled here16. The situation is similar in other states of the country.

However, attempts at administrative interference in the traditional way of life and customs of Hindus are often met with active resistance. In 2005, a Social Support Center employee, Shakuntala Verma, from Madhya Pradesh, tried to prevent the marriage of three girls. On the evening of May 11, an unknown man armed with a sword broke into Shakuntala's house and attacked her. The woman was seriously injured. Threats and assaults on social workers have also occurred in other districts of the state.

At the same time, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Babulal Gaur, said that for his part, he is not going to prosecute those who arrange children's weddings. He argues that early marriage is a scourge, similar to alcoholism and the problem of untouchability. An effective fight against them will be possible only when the level of public awareness of the population increases 17.

The Indian media leaked information that the country's parliament is going to amend the "Sharda Law", which requires mandatory registration of all marriages. Then underage weddings will become almost impossible. The National Commission for Women's Rights, Mothers ' Committees, and other Indian women's organizations, desperate to gain understanding from the parents of young brides and grooms, are actively promoting education directly in schools. They conduct awareness-raising interviews, distribute booklets and leaflets, and hold rallies against child marriage. Gradually, this work is bearing fruit. So, 15-year-old Shital Pawar from Pune called the helpline and said that her parents were arranging her marriage. The wedding was canceled. However, such cases are rather an exception to the general rule. For example, only at St. John's High School. There are more than 100 married couples studying in Parbatpura, Rajasthan. In such a situation, representatives of non-governmental organizations can only attend all mass marriage ceremonies and persuade young husbands to refrain from performing their marital duties until their wives come of age.

Saltykov A.D. Letters about India. Moscow, 1985, p. 17.

Gandhi M. K. 2 My Life, Moscow, 1969, p. 45.

Prasad P 3. Autobiography. Moscow, 1961, p. 27.

4 Year Book 2005: Competition Review. New Delhi, 2005, p. 213.

Pandey R. B. 5 Drevneindiskie domnye obryady [Ancient Indian home rituals], Moscow, 1990, p.169.

6 Ibid., pp. 165-166.

Dubois J. A. 7 Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies. Delhi, 1978, p. 207.

Basham A. 8 The Miracle that India was, Moscow, 2000, p. 180.

Yurlova E. S. 9 Outstanding women of India of the XX century: Introduction, Moscow, 2002, pp. 9-11.

Walker B. 10 The Hindu World: V. 1. N. Y., 1968, с. 232.

11 India 2006: A Reference Annual. New Delhi, 2006, p. 594.

12 Ibid., 24 October, 2005.

13 Ibid., 15 August, 2005.

14 Frontline, 15 July, 2005.

15 Ibidem.

16 Hindustan Times, 2 May, 2006.

17 Frontline, 15 July, 2005.


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