Can child marriage save girls of Gujarat's infamous "village of prostitutes" from the family business? I'm changing my tune after reading today's feel-good item in the Indian Express.
"Gugun and Babi from Wadia village in Banaskantha district stoically sit through their engagement," the paper's Lakshmi Ajay writes in a snappy color lede. "For Gugun (12), who belongs to the Saraniya community, this early engagement is perhaps the only way she can escape the so-called tradition of prostitution that has been continuing in her community since ages [sic]."
Thanks to an NGO called Vicharta Samuday Samarthan Manch, a dozen girls between the ages of 12 and 16 were engaged to be married, and eight young women older than 18 were married to volunteer grooms in a mass ceremony performed Sunday, the paper reports. But its tone of sanctimony crossed with naivete prompted me to rethink my earlier enthusiasm for the program (which was primarily prompted by my eye for news that makes good copy anyway).
These girls don't need husbands. What they need are jobs, and marketable skills. By pushing them into marriage, the NGO is inadvertently reinforcing social norms that force millions of Indian women to stay with drunks, wife beaters and rapists -- if for no other reason than to avoid sexual assaults from the rest of the neighborhood. The engagements for 12 year olds speak for themselves.
Already, the article notes that male residents of Wadia pimp out their wives to make a buck, so it's clear that being married isn't a surefire fix. Moreover, the all-too frequent incidence of abuse or "bride burning" after young women of all backgrounds move in with their in-laws suggests that these girls may be being thrown (almost literally) from the frying pan into the fire.
Not long ago, Rahul Bedi wrote for the UK's Telegraph that such dowry deaths are actually on the increase in India, citing National Crime Bureau statistics to reveal that at least one bride was killed by her in-laws for every 90 minutes of 2010.
So what if you come to your new household as a charity case, adopted from a family tainted by prostitution? My guess is you'd better come with more than a new washing machine, or you just might find yourself standing by the side of the highway again; same story, different village.