India Child-Marriage Laws Ignored

Eleven-year-old Rekha, left, stands with her groom Bheeram Singh, 16, after their marriage in Rajgarh, about 105 kilometers (65 miles), northwest of Bhopal, India, Thursday May 12, 2005.
Ignoring laws that ban child marriages, hundreds of children, some as young as seven years old, were married this week in a centuries-old custom across central and western India.

Held to coincide with "Akkha Teej," a summer festival believed to be auspicious for weddings, the marriages took place mostly in small towns and villages, where the laws have little effect and officials could do little more than record the names of the children being married.

Hundreds of children were married this week in Rajgarh, about 65 miles northwest of Bhopal, the capital of the central state of Madhya Pradesh.

"The law to stop child marriage is not powerful enough," Girija Mewada, a police constable posted at a Hindu temple in Rajgarh, said Wednesday, as she noted down the names of young couples who went to the temple for wedding blessings.

India law prohibits marriage for women younger than 18 and men under age 21, and parents who break the law — nearly all such marriages are arranged by parents — can be jailed for up to three months.

But while the practice is dying out among urban, educated people, child marriages remain common in rural areas. There, it is seen as being beneficial for both families: The bride's parents don't have to support her for very long, and the groom's family gains an unpaid servant, often treated as virtual slave, who usually brings a dowry.

The children remain in their parents' houses, though, until the girl reaches puberty, after which she is brought to the groom's home with great ceremony and the marriage is consummated.

On Wednesday, 11-year-old Soram Singh peeked shyly from behind her veil a couple of hours after her marriage to Bheeram Singh, 16, a student in the nearby government school. Singh is a common surname in the town, and the two are not related.