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India: Tsunami traps teens in wedlock

Publish Date: 08 Jun 2005

Source: The Times, UK
By Catherine Philp

NAGARANI never dreamt that she would be married at 16.

But that was before the Boxing Day tsunami washed away her family's home and left her, her widowed mother and younger sisters with nowhere to live but a relief camp packed with other homeless villagers.

First came the looks from the older men - then the visits to propose marriage.

A neighbour threatened to kidnap her if she did not agree to marriage and tried to snatch her on her way to market.

Her mother had had enough. "You must marry," she told Nagarani. "How long can I look after a pretty girl like you? Please see it my way. I only want you to be safe."

Nagarani had little choice. Nor was she the first teenage girl in the village in this position.

"We call them the tsunami marriages," she said with a shrug. "You can't see any 16-year-old girls here anymore, only 16-year-old wives."

In the months since the tsunami struck, teenage girls the length of India's battered Tamil Nadu coast have been dragooned into marriage.

Some are married off by parents terrified of their honour being compromised in the crowded relief camps; some because their parents can no longer afford to look after them and widowed men come asking for their daughters' hands.

The tsunami killed four women for every man.

The men were stronger swimmers and the women were slowed as they tried to rescue children.

There is now a dangerous gender imbalance in many villages. In 16-year-old Selvanakayi's village, 45 people were killed by the wave, all but three of them female.

Her first cousin asked for her hand after the tsunami killed his grandmother, the only female member of his household.

"They wanted him to marry so there would be a woman in the house," Selvanakayi said. "I was shocked when they came and told me. I refused but my mother started trying to convince me that they needed me there. In the end I had no choice, so I thought 'better the devil you know'."

Both families had another good reason to marry-off their daughters: an incentive from the Government.

After the tsunami, it offered a wedding package worth 40,000 rupees ($1200) to every bride from the stricken area to ease the burden of wedding costs.

It was intended only for legal brides aged over 18. But parents of under-age girls - who had also lost everything in the tsunami - saw the chance to cash in. In the chaos, rules were easy to circumvent.

"My parents lost all their documents along with the house so when they asked for proof of my age, we didn't have any," Amalah, 16, said.

She was married to a first cousin two months after the tsunami. "So my schoolteacher vouched for me and told them I was 18. Nobody questioned it," she said.

Amalah never returned to school, thus abandoning her dream of becoming the first member of her family to get a skilled job.

"If I studied a lot, imagine what I could be doing. I could have been doing what you do," she said, nodding towards the journalist noting her story. "That makes me sad."

Priya, 15, was married to a 19-year-old neighbour in January. He had pursued her for months, even proposing, but before the tsunami she had no time for him.

Then, in the forced proximity of the camp, he entered her room when her mother was gone and pressured her into sex, she claims.

After that, it was not for her to say no. The village community held a wedding, she was given some jewellery and sent to live with her young husband, who quickly tired of her.

"I think the village elders took the (government) money," she said. "We never saw it."

Neither did Nagarani, whose mother took out a 50,000-rupee loan to pay for her marriage.

Nagarani finds it hard to disagree with her mother's decision. Shortly after her marriage, two close friends were sexually assaulted in a relief camp and later killed themselves.

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