In India, Small Children Are Married Off In Hindu Tradition

By T.C. Malhotra | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

New Delhi ( - Thousands of illegal child marriages - some involving girls as young as four - reportedly took place in India this week, in a Hindu tradition that continues despite wide criticism.

More than 3,000 of the ceremonies were reported to have taken place in tribal villages in the central state of Chattisgarh on Sunday, the birthday of the mythological Hindu deity, Rama.

The marriages were reported by a non-governmental agency but the senior government official in the area, District Collector K.S. Kehari, said he was still looking into the claim.

Child marriages in India are forbidden by a law dating back to British colonial period, when the practice was common. The law prohibits girls under 18 and boys under 21 to marry, and parents abetting child marriages may also face penalties.

The children reportedly married off on Sunday range in age from 4 to14, and most were unaware of what was happening, reported the non-governmental agency, called the Forum for Fact-Finding, Documentation and Advocacy (FFDA).

The FFDA said most of the children involved had no idea what marriage is, and many did not even know the name of their spouse.

"Husbands" tend to be a couple of years younger than their "wives."

Kehari said he has distributed pamphlets in villages throughout the area warning against child marriages and explaining the law.

"When a whole village groups together and there are no eyewitnesses, it is difficult to take action," he said.

FFDA project director Subhash Chandra Mohapatra said girl brides stay with their parents until puberty, and the marriages are consummated immediately after puberty is reached. Girls therefore become mothers as early as 12 and 13, resulting in high female mortality.

Mohapatra said local police were aware of the marriages. He charged that police accepted bribes and allowed the villagers to go ahead with their customs.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has demanded an end to child marriages, saying they condemn millions of young girls to lives of misery and pain, inflicting a high physical and emotional toll on them.

Child marriages are also reported to be prevalent in another Indian state, Rajasthan in the west. Even small babies have been known to be married off there, in the name of tradition.

N.V. Krishnan, a former bureaucrat in the Social Welfare Department, said the government was trying to involve non-governmental organizations in spreading awareness about the pitfalls of child marriages.

They are also attempting to encourage families to delay the date when the married daughters leave home to join their husbands, when the marriages are actually consummated.

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