This article originally appeared on VICE Asia
In Shravasti, a district of the Indian state Uttar Pradesh, the placing of vermilion (red pigment) on a young girl’s forehead, or turmeric on her body, marks the end of her short-lived childhood and the start of her wedded life. Thrust into marriage before she has even reached puberty, her days are heavy with housework and parenthood.
Child marriage in India has actually seen a decline in the past decade, but India still has more than 15 million underage child brides. The practice dates back to the medieval period and has persisted as a cultural tradition here ever since, despite the fact it is technically illegal for a girl under 18 and a boy under 21 to marry. Reasons for the persistence of child marriage in India are varied and complex with different economic, political and socio-cultural factors underpinning people’s decision to marry their children off. In rural areas, where child marriage is more prevalent, poverty, female illiteracy and lack of access to education and health services perpetuate the practice.
New Delhi photojournalist Saumya Khandelwal began documenting the practice of child marriage in Shravasti, where one in four girls are married before the age of 18.
We spoke to Khandelwal about her work, and the life of child brides in Shravasti.
VICE: Why did you decide to document child marriage in Shravasti?
Saumya Khandelwal: I came across a piece of literature that discussed Shravasti’s high child marriage and child mortality rates. Shravasti is about 100km from my hometown, Lucknow, so I was surprised that this was happening really close [to people] back home yet nobody was really talking about it. When we talk about child marriage in India, it’s a known fact that it’s rampant in states like Rajasthan and West Bengal and it's kind of known that it's out there in Uttar Pradesh as well, but there isn't really that much documentation happening.
What reasons do people in Shravasti have for marrying their children off?
During my travels, I spoke with a mother who had married off her 15-year-old daughter. The mother herself [had been] a child bride and experienced a lot of problems during her marriage including childbirth. So I asked her why she got her daughter married so early. She said, “What if next year we experience floods in the village and my husband dies? Who will take care of the kids? We need to ensure that these kids will at least be fed.” So while lack of education and societal pressures nurture practices like child marriage, people have practical reasons, too.
Are people in Shravasti aware that the practice is illegal?
In concept they know it’s illegal, but everybody practices it. The government hasn’t been able to control child marriage and the police don’t really do anything about it. Even when attempts are made to stop a child marriage, the most that happens is that the [ceremony] ends up being postponed, then happens secretly.
So people aren’t afraid of being caught?
The fact that they know it's illegal and still continue to do it, and [are] still are okay with me documenting them, shows how confident they are that they won't be punished. In fact, every time I visit the villages now, I get invitations to child marriages, which is crazy.
How do girls come to learn they are going to be married?
I met girls who only learned that they were getting married on the day of the ceremony. There's this practice where turmeric is applied to the body of the bride, and there was this one girl who, when that happened, realised that the party happening [at] her house was because she was getting married. I've also met girls who kind of knew a couple of months before the marriage yet in none of the cases were they asked if they wanted to marry.
What kind of attitudes do girls in Shravasti have toward their futures?
Whenever I asked the girls what they wanted to do with their lives they didn't really have an answer. Some would say, maybe we'll get married and have kids. One girl I met said she wanted to be a cop. These girls don't really think that they're eligible for a future. They aren’t even aware that there are girls their age doing other, [different] things in life.
What do the girls think about being married off?
There was one girl I was photographing called Muskaan. On the day of her wedding I asked her how she felt about her marriage, and she said, “What is there to feel about it? It's happened. It happens to everyone and I'm no different, so it's going to happen to me.” It’s like they submit to this fate they know is pre-written for them.
Do these girls understand what marriage means at such a young age?
Mostly their understanding of marriage is that they will need to take care of the house, feed the cattle, make the food, and wash utensils and clothes, because that's what they've seen growing up.
What are some of the rituals or traditions of a child marriage?
Typically in Hindu marriages the girls don't start living with their husband right after their marriage ceremony, but only after a ceremony called “gauna”, which takes place a few months to a few years after the marriage. Gauna is the time when they think the girl is mature enough to start living with her husband. I think somewhere there is an acknowledgement that 14 is too young for a girl to get married.
How is it decided that a girl is mature enough?
They think that when a girl has started her period she's mature enough.
What happens during a gauna ceremony?
The gauna ceremony is basically this little send-off ceremony which involves the girl’s family and friends who are gathered in her house. The girl is expected to cry, and so are the relatives. I found it fascinating because while it's supposed to theatrical, it then becomes a trigger for a genuine emotional release. For instance, during Muskaan’s gauna, she was first doing it for the theatrics, but somewhere it was also sinking in that she was going. Afterwards she said goodbye to everyone and left in a vehicle to her new husband's house with her belongings.
What is life like for child brides after marriage?
I'll put it really bluntly: basically they work as a free maid in their new husband’s house. They’re not able to step out of the house, and they do what their husband or what their in-laws ask them to do.
Have your thoughts on child marriage changed since you began documenting these girls in Shravasti?
The one thing I was always conscious of was that while I don’t agree with the practice of child marriage, I don’t want to go in with the perspective of, “Hey I’m coming from the city and I don’t think child marriage is the right thing to do.” I don’t think that's fair, because at the end of the day, even if we disagree with it, that’s the way society has evolved over the years. They have a normalcy to their own lives, and I tried to get that normalcy in my photographs.