Here Come the Brides

Of all the expenses American parents cheerfully take on for their children, weddings have always struck me as the worst possible investment. The average wedding costs over $23,000, and nearly 40% of marriages end in divorce. You do the math.

Yet despite our culture’s excesses, we’ve got nothing on Indian families. World Bank reports that, “for most Indian parents the cost of a daughter’s marriage is the single largest expense of their lives.”

For some parents, it’s literally a matter of wife or death. More than one father has committed suicide to escape the pressure to produce such a sum.

But mass marriage ceremonies, like the one to be held next month in Karnataka, India, are beginning to change all that.

“The normal wedding involves too many costs, too many feasts, too many guests,” Vishnu Ingle, told The Hindu last May. Ingle resides in Maharashtra, a state that has held mass marriages since 1983. “Our girls will get married and none of them will pay more than Rs. 7,000 (about $150) for it.”

This August, 40 couples in Karnataka will also tie their respective knots en masse. The free ceremony is being sponsored by R M Company Group, which footed a bill of about $5,300 per couple, reported Daijiworld Media Network earlier this month. Couples were selected from a pool of 150 applicants, and each will receive cash and gold ornaments from the sponsor.

Most mass weddings aren’t quite this swank. At last May’s ceremony for tribal tea workers in West Bengal, put on by a local charitable organization, 101 tribal couples were given items to help set up house, the Gaea Times reports.

But how is it that in a country where 305 million people – more than the entire U.S. population – lives on less than $1.25 per day, weddings are so exorbitantly priced?

Dowry seems to be the main culprit. Though technically illegal in India, it is still widely practiced, particularly in rural areas. Originally intended to be a pre-mortem inheritance, over time dowry evolved into a “groom price”. Today very few Indian brides retain control of dowry assets after entering wedlock.

And the price of grooms has skyrocketed. World Bank refers to a study of one rural area, where residents regularly paid up to six times their annual income to secure good marriages for their daughters.

It’s a vicious cycle: in India, female children are often thought of as financially burdensome, because of the exorbitant dowries their families will one day be forced to pay. Educating girls would increase this financial burden, so many women – 54%, according to India’s most recent Census – remain illiterate into adulthood. Because women are uneducated, they have no way to contribute to their family’s income and must rely on marriage for survival.

I believe mass marriages are a positive and practical way to address the huge gender inequities that still persist in this developing nation. And, despite the occasional corporate sponsorship, it’s a primarily grassroots movement led by the people who seem the least likely to redefine cultural norms–impoverished parents.

Though we’ll probably never feel forced to choose between suicide and exorbitant wedding costs, I still believe Americans (especially those of us who fancy ourselves “socially conscious”) need to rethink the whole wedding thing. As we strive toward greater global equity, should we really be blowing more than 26 times what the average Indian earns in a year, for a single day?

Photo by: JOVIKA

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