By Pritha Hariharan, program director for Unbound’s international programs
Picture this: a young girl of 13 fully decked out in a brand new sari. All the gold her family can afford hangs on her ears, around her neck, her wrists, her ankles and even her waist. She is the center of attention — all the ladies of the family and the neighborhood mill around her. Some bring gifts, others bring food, but everyone is congratulating her and her parents.
She isn’t quite sure why she’s been put in the spotlight, but she’s enjoying it for now. The male siblings are feeling left out, and for the first time in their lives they can’t figure out why the sister is getting all the attention.
Middle school graduation?
That girl was me, a time so long ago that I am surprised I even remember it so vividly. And the occasion was a “puberty ceremony,” a coming-of-age ceremony that is unique to some communities in South India. In Hindu culture in the state of Tamil Nadu, a girl’s attainment of puberty is considered one of the biggest milestones of her life — the other two being her wedding and her pregnancy.
The same society that still believes a girl should be segregated during menstruation and not allowed access to temples or other sacred spaces celebrates this ceremony with as much pomp and circumstance as a family’s economic condition will allow. It’s usually celebrated by inviting friends and family over. Plenty of food is served, and the girl receives several gifts — one of which is her first sari, indicating her passage into “womanhood.” In Hindu tradition, the woman’s regenerative power is considered sacred and something to be honored.
Before colonial times, when marriage of a girl younger than 18 was neither uncommon nor illegal, this ceremony served to announce to the community that there was now a girl of marriageable age in the house. This would alert matchmakers, aunts, uncles and relatives near and far of the new status of the girl.
The British Raj banned child marriage — defined as marriage of any girl under 18 or a boy under 21 — in 1929. What was very common in my grandmothers’ time is now banned and punishable by jail time for parents. Incidentally, both my grandmothers were married by the age of 14 and started bearing children almost right away, when their fragile bodies could not even handle it, which led to several miscarriages and a lifetime of health complications.
Child marriage rates have dramatically fallen in recent times to a nationwide average of 7 percent by 2009, according to the Times of India. While there are still states in India where such marriages occur without the knowledge of authorities, or with authorities turning an intentional blind eye, it’s a welcome downward trend.
In modern times, the coming-of-age ceremony is still conducted by families who want to keep the tradition alive. The intention is no longer to announce to the whole world the availability of a child bride. However, it does come with many questions, especially from a Western perspective, as to what purpose this ceremony might serve.
Unbound sponsors sometimes receive letters from their sponsored friends in which they mention with great excitement their puberty ceremony or how they’re looking forward to their sister’s ceremony. It might seem horrifying at first from an American standpoint, to announce to the world something as private as getting your first menstrual cycle.
I can also attest from a personal standpoint that it certainly involves a great deal of embarrassment for the girl involved. Three-plus decades later, I do look back upon that weekend with something close to fondness. It was one of the few times our entire extended family got together — a few years after that, life started taking the extended family in different directions around the globe.
My younger cousins have the confidence I lacked to put their foot down and refuse to have the ceremony. Today, I am in a place where I appreciate those nuances I could not when all I wanted to do was hide beneath my brand new, 9-yard red sari.
I suspect many young girls in the Unbound sponsorship program are already finding their voices in determining whether or not to experience the ceremony for themselves. The small groups that mothers participate in as part of the Unbound program allow them to share their common experiences — whether it is one of vehement rejection of all things traditional or a nuanced acceptance of them. Whatever the choice, the hope is that the mother and the daughter feel empowered enough to make that decision for themselves. Unbound’s goal is to provide these mothers and young girls the space to do that.