Because the wedding was illegal and a secret, except to the invited guests, and because marriage rites in Rajasthan are often conducted late at night, it was well into the afternoon before the three girl brides in this dry farm settlement in the north of India began to prepare themselves for their sacred vows. They squatted side by side on the dirt, a crowd of village women holding sari cloth around them as a makeshift curtain, and poured soapy water from a metal pan over their heads. Two of the brides, the sisters Radha and Gora, were 15 and 13, old enough to understand what was happening. The third, their niece Rajani, was 5. She wore a pink T-shirt with a butterfly design on the shoulder. A grown-up helped her pull it off to bathe.
The grooms were en route from their own village, many miles away. No one could afford an elephant or the lavishly saddled horses that would have been ceremonially correct for the grooms' entrance to the wedding, so they were coming by car and were expected to arrive high-spirited and drunk. The only local person to have met the grooms was the father of the two oldest girls, a slender gray-haired farmer with a straight back and a drooping mustache. This farmer, whom I will call Mr. M, was both proud and wary as he surveyed guests funneling up the rocky path toward the bright silks draped over poles for shade; he knew that if a nonbribable police officer found out what was under way, the wedding might be interrupted mid-ceremony, bringing criminal arrests and lingering shame to his family.
Rajani was Mr. M's granddaughter, the child of his oldest married daughter. She had round brown eyes, a broad little nose, and skin the color of milk chocolate. She lived with her grandparents. Her mother had moved to her husband's village, as rural married Indian women are expected to do, and this husband, Rajani's father, was rumored to be a drinker and a bad farmer. The villagers said it was the grandfather, Mr. M, who loved Rajani most; you could see this in the way he had arranged a groom for her from the respectable family into which her aunt Radha was also being married. This way she would not be lonely after her gauna, the Indian ceremony that marks the physical transfer of a bride from her childhood family to her husband's. When Indian girls are married as children, the gauna is supposed to take place after puberty, so Rajani would live for a few more years with her grandparents—and Mr. M had done well to protect this child in the meantime, the villagers said, by marking her publicly as married.
These were things we learned in a Rajasthan village during Akha Teej, a festival that takes place during the hottest months of spring, just before the monsoon rains, and that is considered an auspicious time for weddings. We stared miserably at the 5-year-old Rajani as it became clear that the small girl in the T-shirt, padding around barefoot and holding the pink plastic sunglasses someone had given her, was also to be one of the midnight ceremony's brides. The man who had led us to the village, a cousin to Mr. M, had advised us only that a wedding was planned for two teenage sisters. That in itself was risky to disclose, as in India girls may not legally marry before age 18. But the techniques used to encourage the overlooking of illegal weddings—neighborly conspiracy, appeals to family honor—are more easily managed when the betrothed girls have at least reached puberty. The littlest daughters tend to be added on discreetly, their names kept off the invitations, the unannounced second or third bride at their own weddings.
Rajani fell asleep before the ceremonials began. An uncle lifted her gently from her cot, hoisted her over one of his shoulders, and carried her in the moonlight toward the Hindu priest and the smoke of the sacred fire and the guests on plastic chairs and her future husband, a ten-year-old boy with a golden turban on his head.
The outsider's impulse toward child bride rescue scenarios can be overwhelming: Snatch up the girl, punch out the nearby adults, and run. Just make it stop. Above my desk, I have taped to the wall a photograph of Rajani on her wedding night. In the picture it's dusk, six hours before the marriage ceremony, and her face is turned toward the camera, her eyes wide and untroubled, with the beginnings of a smile. I remember my own rescue fantasies roiling that night—not solely for Rajani, whom I could have slung over my own shoulder and carried away alone, but also for the 13- and the 15-year-old sisters who were being transferred like requisitioned goods, one family to another, because a group of adult males had arranged their futures for them.
The people who work full-time trying to prevent child marriage, and to improve women's lives in societies of rigid tradition, are the first to smack down the impertinent notion that anything about this endeavor is simple. Forced early marriage thrives to this day in many regions of the world—arranged by parents for their own children, often in defiance of national laws, and understood by whole communities as an appropriate way for a young woman to grow up when the alternatives, especially if they carry a risk of her losing her virginity to someone besides her husband, are unacceptable.
Child marriage spans continents, language, religion, caste. In India the girls will typically be attached to boys four or five years older; in Yemen, Afghanistan, and other countries with high early marriage rates, the husbands may be young men or middle-aged widowers or abductors who rape first and claim their victims as wives afterward, as is the practice in certain regions of Ethiopia. Some of these marriages are business transactions, barely adorned with additional rationale: a debt cleared in exchange for an 8-year-old bride; a family feud resolved by the delivery of a virginal 12-year-old cousin. Those, when they happen to surface publicly, make for clear and outrage-inducing news fodder from great distances away. The 2008 drama of Nujood Ali, the 10-year-old Yemeni girl who found her way alone to an urban courthouse to request a divorce from the man in his 30s her father had forced her to marry, generated worldwide headlines and more recently a book, translated into 30 languages: I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced.
But inside a few of the communities in which parent-arranged early marriage is common practice—amid the women of Rajani's settlement, for example, listening to the mournful sound of their songs to the bathing brides—it feels infinitely more difficult to isolate the nature of the wrongs being perpetrated against these girls. Their educations will be truncated not only by marriage but also by rural school systems, which may offer a nearby school only through fifth grade; beyond that, there's the daily bus ride to town, amid crowded-in, predatory men. The middle school at the end of the bus ride may have no private indoor bathroom in which an adolescent girl can attend to her sanitary needs. And schooling costs money, which a practical family is surely guarding most carefully for sons, with their more readily measurable worth. In India, where by long-standing practice most new wives leave home to move in with their husbands' families, the Hindi term paraya dhan refers to daughters still living with their own parents. Its literal meaning is "someone else's wealth."
Remember this too: The very idea that young women have a right to select their own partners—that choosing whom to marry and where to live ought to be personal decisions, based on love and individual will—is still regarded in some parts of the world as misguided foolishness. Throughout much of India, for example, a majority of marriages are still arranged by parents. Strong marriage is regarded as the union of two families, not two individuals. This calls for careful negotiation by multiple elders, it is believed, not by young people following transient impulses of the heart.
So in communities of pressing poverty, where nonvirgins are considered ruined for marriage and generations of ancestors have proceeded in exactly this fashion—where grandmothers and great-aunts are urging the marriages forward, in fact, insisting, I did it this way and so shall she—it's possible to see how the most dedicated anti-child-marriage campaigner might hesitate, trying to fathom where to begin. "One of our workers had a father turn to him, in frustration," says Sreela Das Gupta, a New Delhi health specialist who previously worked for the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), one of several global nonprofits working actively against early marriage. "This father said, 'If I am willing to get my daughter married late, will you take responsibility for her protection?' The worker came back to us and said, 'What am I supposed to tell him if she gets raped at 14?' These are questions we don't have answers to."