“Instant Marriage” in India Another Result of Gender Discrimination

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“Instant Marriage” in India Another Result of Gender Discrimination

Deepali Gaur Singh

Movement or displacement of women after marriage in India is a phenomenon commonly linked to issues of exploitation and trafficking of women.

Movement or displacement of women after marriage is a phenomenon commonly linked to exploitation and trafficking of women. Forced prostitution and labor feed on the relationship between marriage and migration as many women find themselves inextricably trapped in these often exploitative relationships.

In India, the traditional patriarchal set-up demands that the woman moves into the matrimonial home of her husband, which also houses her in-laws and new extended family. A huge number of migrant women in the country move away from their natal homes after their marriage, which is hardly surprising since girls and women are viewed as someone’s else property to be given up by way of marriage in any case. According to the 2001 census, women account for almost three quarters, or 65 percent, of the total migration reported in the country.

While female migrant labor remains invisible for many reasons, it is also often tied to the migration of the spouses so there is more opportunity for exploitation and vulnerability to occur. 

In a trafficking situation, after being sold off to the next buyer by a fake husband who is involved in the sex trafficking network, women find themselves in fraternal polyandrous marriages. When they reach their matrimonial homes, they are abandoned for various reasons, and are put in abusive conditions working for little or no remuneration. 

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Women’s position in Indian society and how they continue to be viewed determines the decisions that are made for them in marriage, whether real or contrived marriages. In many cases, they simply have become the currency of exchange.  It is just the terms of engagement that get modified according to the situation. 

The conditions change with the social factors driving them at that time. In many parts of India, girls are devalued and often are unwelcome in most households, especially if a second child is a female born into a home where the first-born child is already a girl.  In these settings, sex selection abortion, female infanticide, or neglect of girl children through denial of food and medical care may be routine.  Higher rates of mortality among girl children lead to skewed sex ratios in which boys far outnumber girls.  As a result, India has fewer females per thousand males than is the norm biologically or socially in most other countries. The national average in the country, as per the 2001 census, is 933
females per 1,000 males. In some states, however, the ratio is far worse.  Uttar Pradesh, for example, has a gender ratio of 898 females to 1000
males, ranking only slightly better than Punjab, Haryana and Sikkim, the
worst affected states. 

Yet the near-drought of young, marriageable women that results in regions such as Punjab and Haryana where gender discrimination is most pronounced has driven prospective suitors in these areas to resort to "buying" their brides from other more impoverished regions.  So the skewed gender ratio in these states leads to sourcing brides from faraway eastern states of India like West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. 

Even as sex selection extracts its price, communities have devised their own means of dealing with the situation of uneven gender ratios.  In a country where marriages thrive on regional, caste and class, and the 
chastity of the girl, new means of driving marriage arrangements have been prompted by the scarcity of girls and
driven by poverty of a substantial bulk of the population. 

For example, a pre-assembled baraat, or wedding procession, consists of a ready groom and willing parents. All that’s missing in this perfect wedding scenario is the bride, who has to be found somewhere.  These are the essential ingredients of what is being increasingly referred to as chatpat shaadi or instant wedding, an increasingly common practice in some districts of the north state Uttar Pradesh (UP).

Unorthodox at the very least and excessively pragmatic at the most, families engage in these instant weddings to fulfill the socially indispensable requirement of marriage, a community pressure that bears upon eligible girls and boys and their families, though sooner for girls than boys. 

What the eastern parts of this state have been witnessing over the years is the arrival of boys in groups of ten or more with their families in tow. The destination villages conduct guided tours, on the basis of locally collected data about eligible girls and acquiescent parents. Initially the practice involved cross-checking the antecedents of both families, but it’s now a practice the girls’ families are doing away with. 

The ceremony’s immediacy is reflected by the hurried, exchanged vows at the local temple, and the groom’s party’s return home in a matter of days, with a very young bride in tow. 

To some extent, these marriages bear the imprint of mass marriages conducted in almost every rural or semi-urban part of the country. It’s a quick fix community work model practised by local politicians. In many of these mass marriages, young girls have been married in clear violation of the law. These marriages can be seen as just another local version of marriage with poverty being the guiding factor. 

What is even more interesting is that while the female to male ratio is below 900 in the western districts, it is above 1,000 in some of the eastern districts guiding the flow of women from eastern UP to the western part of the state via matrimony. 

Weddings in small towns and villages were traditionally arranged by the community’s priest, who had access to information about eligible girls and boys and willing parents. Today’s instant weddings are now arranged by a local facilitator. While frequently a middle-man, the facilitator could also be a woman, who by virtue of marriage, has family in the villages of both the bride and the groom. The facilitator is the person who verifies the antecedents of both sides, and arranges the modalities and logistics of the wedding. Despite the financial burden the dowry system places on the bride’s side, these weddings have become attractive because of the limited economic burden placed on the parents. Often the absence of a dowry demand is what makes the groom acceptable, no questions asked. In fact, the financial insecurity of the bride’s family implies that the groom’s side bears a substantial part of the wedding expenses – the bride price for the girl. Often the lucrative offer of a dowry-less alliance is the first step into a life built on deceit and various levels of exploitation as the girl is taken to far off villages and towns, isolated from her own support systems and family. 

The pressure the institution of marriage places on the social fabric
and its denizens only widens the scope of exploitation of girls, and
often her family. Innumerable narratives center around the lack of
information and naiveté of the victims, with women realizing they have
been duped after they are a long distance from their homes. 

Low literacy levels only worsen their situations as they rarely know
whom to approach for redress in a completely alien and hostile
environment. The amount of deceit involves cases when the groom’s side
have built an entire façade of home, relatives and assets for the
bride, and reality strikes only when the bride reaches her new home. 

What could follow is physical and sexual abuse apart from being
confined to prevent women from returning to their families. The social
ostracism associated with an abandoned or divorced wife forces women to
continue living in this environment.