- Afsha Hakim
DHADEECHA PRATHA - A BRIDE MARKET IN INDIA
Recently, several news websites and social media pages have been spreading the word about the practice of selling women as ‘brides’ in Shivpuri, a rural town in Madhya Pradesh. This practice, known as Dhadeecha Pratha, is considered to be a tradition, where women belonging to the lower caste, whose families have to struggle through poverty, enter into a contract with men who have monetary power, to be their wife for a fixed amount of temporary time which is stated along with the price the men need to pay, on government stamp papers. This rental contract is usually on a yearly basis and can be renewed as well. The money is often paid to the ‘bride’s’ family members, or to her directly, and the ‘rate’ on average is usually a few thousand rupees. Younger girls, ideally virgins with a more aesthetic ‘curvy’ body are offered better rates, sometimes even up to two lakhs, and thus the families force their girls to take hormones that can increase the size of their breasts and other body muscles. Young girls from the age of eight to fifteen are said to be of the highest demand in the market. The police and the authorities are seemingly aware of the practice; however, no formal complaint has been filed to date. 
In a society, that is gradually moving towards gender equality, this practice is setting women back by decades. These girls, many of whom are still minors are treated as chattels - a means of income for their family, and an object for her matrimonial home, used for sexual pleasure. While the exact time and reason for this tradition to start remain unknown, there are two certain reasons for its current existence.
First, Section 2(f) of the Immoral Trafficking Act 1956, defines 'prostitution as 'sexual exploitation or abuse of persons for commercial purposes.While prostitution is legal in India, it has certain prohibitions and restrictions to protect the weaker parts of society, that might be coerced into it. Section 372 and 373 of the Indian Penal Code, make any kind of prostitution involving a minor female, a crime, punishable with imprisonment up to ten years, as well as a fine.Further, Section 366A criminalizes the procuration of a minor girl, where she can be coerced or seduced into entering any illicit relationship. The explanation to Section 372, defines ‘illicit intercourse’, as ‘sexual intercourse between persons not united by marriage or by any union or tie which, though not amounting to a marriage, is recognized by the personal law or custom of the community to which they belong or, where they belong to different communities, of both such communities, as constituting between them a quasi-marital relation’
Second, an exception to Section 375 of the Penal Code, which defines, and criminalizes rape, clarifies that sexual intercourse between a man and his wife who is above the age of fifteen would not amount to rape. The Supreme Court in the case of Independent Thought v. Union of India has extended this bracket till the age of eighteen. Hence, the law assumes that once married, an adult woman has given perpetual consent to her husband for any sexual act. Thus, even if prostitution is not illegal in India, because of the social stigma attached to it, perhaps those participating in Dhadeecha feel that marrying a girl for a time being, is a better option to get access to sexual intercourse without having to worry about being shunned by the society or tackling legal problems of being accused of rape and illicit intercourse.
However, escaping from the legal perils of marrying a minor girl, as young as eight can be complicated. The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 fills in the gap for the confusion that the Hindu Marriage Act and other personal laws create when it comes to the validity of child marriages. According to Section 3, at the option of the contracting party, child marriage can be voidable. The petition for annulment can be filed by a minor through his or her guardian, or next friend. The petition can also be filed two years after attaining the age of majority, making it 20 years for a woman and 23 years for a man. Section 9, penalizes a male adult above the age of eighteen, for solemnizing marriage with a minor girl, with two years of imprisonment, and a fine of up to one lakh rupees, other than this whoever helps in the solemnization, and promotion of child marriage are also penalized in the same way.[Section 10, 11]] Most importantly, Section 12 (c) specifies when a minor
'is sold for the purpose of marriage, and made to go through a form of marriage or if the minor is married after which the minor is sold or trafficked or used for immoral purposes, such marriage shall be null and void.’
Hence, under the Dhadeecha Pratha, when a minor girl is being sold off to be the bride of an adult man, such a marriage should be considered null and void. The act also gives power to the court to issue an injunction prohibiting child marriages, [Section 13] and marriages that are solemnized despite such an injunction is also void ab intio. [Section 14]
The traditional practice of Dhadeecha Pratha thus is not only morally wrong but also violates several statutory provisions. The practice is nothing short of slavery as the women, or minor girls are simply being sold and bought, for their exploitation. Solemnizing a marriage with them, for the satisfaction of society, does not make the situation any better. Many of these girls belong to the downtrodden sections of society, where they might not be able to access legal aid and have a say in their apparent marriage or divorce. They are being snatched off their fundamental right to equality, privacy, and dignity, and are being treated inhumanely. Thus, the claims of the existence of such a bridal market, requires a closer investigation by the authorities, as such a practice deserves to be curbed.
Preeti Singh, ‘Bride Market: One can get a Wife on Rent’ (Asiana Times)
Shewali Tiwari, ‘In This MP Village, Rich Men Can Rent a Wife on a Monthly or Yearly Basis For a Few Thousands’ (India Times, 30 June 2018)
Suspense Crime, ‘This place in India blew the senses of the people, when it came to know that, wives get hired here for a month’ (Suspense Crime, 31 March 2020)
The Immoral Trafficking Act 1956
The Indian Penal Code
Independent Thought v. Union of India  10 SCC 800
The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006
Cover Image: Source
About the author: Afshaa Hakim is currently pursuing the 4th year of her BA.LLB degree at Jindal Global Law School. Her preferred pronouns are she/her. She believes in intersectional-feminism and is passionate about human rights, gender-studies and personal laws.