The United Nations report “Motherhood in Childhood” was released recently, and there is so much to think about.

A note on discussing the report: Some feel that Westerners must refrain from criticizing practices that harm women in other cultures because to do do is imperialistic.  As you will read in this post, the women experiencing the practices and others in the culture find dehumanizing women to be problematic.  The recognition of humans as human is not limited to Westerners–that would be an insulting concept.

One practice from India that the UN identifies as harmful to girls is atta-satta, which translates as “exchange.”  According to this presentation on child brides,

Atta Satta is kind of like a plan B for the parents. It is popular in Tonk and Bikaner which are both cities in Rajasthan. Atta Satta is where if the parents of a boy cannot find their son a bride, they trade their daughter for a girl that will marry the son.

Here is the story from the UN report about one girl’s experience as an atta-satta bride and adolescent mother:

I was 16 and never missed a day of school. I liked studying so much…I dreamt of going to college and then getting a good job so that I could take my parents away from the dingy house we lived in.

Then one day, I was told that I had to leave it all, as my parents bartered me for a girl my elder brother was to marry. Such exchange marriages are called atta-satta in my community. I was sad and angry. I pleaded with my mother, but my father had made up his mind.
My only hope was that my husband would let me complete my studies. But he got me pregnant even before I turned 17. Since then, I have hardly ever been allowed to step out of the house….

Sometimes, when the others are not at home, I read my old school books, and hold my baby and cry. She is such an adorable little girl, but I am blamed for not having a son.

But things are gradually changing. Hopefully, customs like atta-satta and child marriage will be totally gone by the time my daughter grows up, and she will get to complete her education and marry only when she wants to.

An article in India Today discusses other issues with atta-satta, including the contribution to preschool-age child marriages:

Around 1.6 crore (note: a crore is 10 million) child marriages continue to take place in parts of India, ignoring the law and bowing to ancient customs that belong to the Dark Ages. By far the largest numbers are from a caste-ridden Rajasthan where children as young as four, five or even less are married off or traded like so many cattle.

According to the story, 170,000 divorces occur per year among children who have not yet reached the legal age of marriage.

Because of the exchange principle of atta-satta, when one of the marriages in the exchange fails, the other often does as well:

Meera’s life was inextricably linked with that of her elder sister Leela. When Leela got married to Narain Lal Mali, Meera was given in marriage to his younger brother Bansi Lal Mali. But a few years later, when Leela refused to go back to her in-laws and settled down with another man Laduji, it was Meera who had to bear the brunt of her sister’s actions.

Laduji paid Rs.70,000 as compensation to Narain and “bought” over Leela. But in the process Meera became a “leftover” girl even before she knew what marriage was as her in-laws refused to accept her in retaliation for her sister’s actions.

Some enter in these exchanges with the intention of gaining a “throwaway bride.” By custom, a divorced person can only marry another divorced person.  Thus, if a never-married person wants to marry someone who has been divorced, the never-married person must get married and divorce someone else first:

Maitra of village Khera in Bhilwara was married off in a similar fashion and for a similar purpose when she was all of seven to 15-year old Ram Pal.

She was given in exchange for a bride for her aging uncle Ram Saroop. For Saroop this marriage was just a ploy to get rid of his unmarried status. He divorced his wife soon after the wedding but in the process Maitra too was divorced by Ram Pal.

Being “traded like so many cattle” is not an acceptable way to treat human beings–boys or girls, women or men.  And when such “exchanges” cause children to bear children…well, that doesn’t bode well for any of the children.
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