Neelu (name changed), an eight-year-old, speaks like one and her eyes have the gleam and wonder of a little girl.
The only aberration here is that Neelu, a class IV student who loves studying English and Maths, has been married for five years.
“Shaadi kab ho gai, kuch yaad nahi [I remember nothing about when I got married],” she says.
Neelu, like several other young girls, was married off on Akshaya Tritiya or Akha Teej, the third lunar day of the Indian month of Vaishakh.
Considered extremely auspicious, Akshaya Tritiya — it fell on a Friday this year — is best known in Rajasthan for the large number of child marriages that are solemnised on this day.
In Neelu’s village, Chittorgarh district’s Ganpatkheda, getting married at three is not out of the ordinary.
Child marriage, despite the discourse on social development and progress, is still rampant in Rajasthan and cuts across regions, caste groups and districts.
This age-old social practice, which was based on mutual economic benefit, has now grown to be used as a way to impose control over female sexuality.
About 400 km from Neelu’s village, Nathi Bai, a 57-year-old woman from Bagon ki Dhani near Jaipur, uses a unique brand of logic to justify child marriages.
“I was seven when I got married. Earlier, young girls were often married off along with their elder sisters in order to save money,” she says.
“They just understand more these days...in our time, girls and boys would roam around naked till they were 10, but now they are attracted to each other very early on,” she says.
Community members concede that it is strange for child marriage to persist to this day but maintain that the rationale behind the practice has changed. Whereas earlier financial and logistical concerns would necessitate the practice, parents today perform child marriages because technology has led to a rise in precocious sexual maturity, they said. “Money is not an issue anymore; everyone has money. But there is the mobile phone and the Internet and WhatsApp available to children [today]. Everyone has access to pornography, and there is this heightened sexual urge among children these days. So, parents want to marry them off early,” says Dayal Bairwa of Renwal near Jaipur.
Curiously, popular perception holds that child marriages helps deal with the rapidly falling sex ratio. “If a boy isn’t married off by 21, there’s a good chance he will stay unmarried... because there are so few girls left,” says Laduram Chaudhary.
“We think girls should be married off by 15 as [unlike] earlier girls and boys understand stuff [today]... now they know everything,” he says.
The efforts of the police and administration continue to be limited to issuing circulars and alerts. The Jaipur district administration recently issued an order that anybody participating in a child marriage — including caterers, musicians or priests — would be liable to be prosecuted under the State’s new Child Marriage Act of 2006.
“We had issued a circular alerting all police stations about this issue...if any such case is found then a FIR is registered,” says ADG (civil rights) R.P. Singh.
However, social activists say formal complaints/FIR against child marriages are few and far between.
But there are those that have dedicated their lives to confronting the pernicious practice.
Bhanwari Devi, a grassroots social activist who was allegedly gang-raped for raising her voice against child marriages, feels things are changing.
Bhanwri, who received the full support of the people of her village Bhateri on issues ranging from literacy, health, education and rape, found herself alienated and ostracised when she spoke out against child marriages.
“Back then, it was very difficult. Nobody would listen to me and you know what happened then,” says Bhanwari, whose case led to the framing of the Vishakha guidelines on sexual harassment of women at the workplace.
“Even now, things are not easy and I am still looked at with suspicion. But there has definitely been a huge change. Now, parents want their girl children to study and then get married at the right age. It is not a complete transformation but these things take time,” she says.