“I was married,” says Ramseki, “when I was still drinking milk. But you don’t move to the husband’s house until you grow up.” By “grow up,” Ramseki means about twelve years old.
Ramseki belongs to a highly untouchable caste that has been marrying off their daughters by the age of two or three for as long as anyone can remember. They’re mostly landless, relying on their traditional jobs for income. They’re extremely important for rituals around marriage and funeral rites – no high-caste person is cremated or married without one of Ramseki’s caste present. Yet because of their traditional jobs, they’re considered untouchable. No high-caste person would even stop outside their door and if he entered their house, would immediately go home and bathe.
Ramseki had children well before she turned eighteen. Like all good mothers she knew, she started looking for her son’s wife when he was barely walking. Her daughter-in-law, Sita, moved into the family around the age of twelve just as her mothers had done before her. Since the family didn’t have land to work in this agrarian society, they depended on whatever ritual and day-laboring work they could find. That, however, wasn’t enough. Sita’s husband left for Lucknow – a full day’s train ride away – to earn money playing in a brass band that accompanies all Hindu wedding parties. He sent home what he could, but still their daily needs weren’t being met.
Ramseki and Sita met Chetna staff and were surprised when they came into their house, sat down, and shared cups of chai with them. The women shared their family’s financial concerns and Chetna offered to help them started their own small business. They gave each woman 500 rupees as a small loan to be repaid 50 rupees a month from their earnings.
In the courtyard of their home, Ramseki and Sita use ancient but sharp knives to carefully break down the thick stalks of bamboo they’ve purchased from the market. Each woman splits to a different size, ranging from sturdy half-inch thick slats to paper thin strings. They can weave the pieces into large vegetable storage baskets, trays used to separate wheat from chaff, and hand-sized flowers and other decorations for weddings and parties.
They used part of the earnings to start a pig herd. One adult pig can sell for as much as 20,000 rupees and a whole herd acts as insurance against future medical problems and wedding expenses.
As Chetna staff continued to visit Ramseki and Sita, the family told them that while the oldest daughter had already been married by age three, their youngest daughter wasn’t yet married and the family was searching for a suitable boy. The staff began to explain why child marriage wasn’t a good idea. For one, it’s illegal – the Indian government has made the legal marriageable age for girls eighteen and twenty-one for boys. Secondly, they said, so many health problems can be caused for the girl when she has children at a young age.
At first, Ramseki was skeptical.
“None of those problems happened to me when I was married young,” she told the staff.
“Your generation was strong,” the staff told her. “The land was better and produced better food. This generation needs more time to mature. And think of how much better you could support your family if you’d been allowed to go to school.”
Slowly, Ramseki’s thinking changed. When the family they’d been considering for their daughter’s marriage arrived to discuss details, Ramseki told them, “We will be waiting to marry our daughter until she’s eighteen.”
Under the shade of their courtyard tree, Richa plays with a thick stalk of bamboo draped across her shoulders. She’ll be the first unmarried child in her family for generations. Perhaps, one day, her daughters won’t even know that’s something remarkable.