At a mass wedding in Madhya Pradesh just before the ceremony was to begin, a would-be bride developed labour pains, shocking those present. Virginity and pregnancy tests were ordered on the 152 prospective brides, of whom 14 were detected to be pregnant.
The incident, that left activists and tribals fuming, occurred June 30 when the brides were assembled for a mass marriage function in Madhya Pradesh's Shahdol district, 350 km from here, held under the 'Mukhyamantri Kanyadan Yojna' - Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan's pet scheme aimed to help girls from poor families tie the knot at government expense.
Marriages under the scheme are solemnised free of cost and all arrangements are made by the district administration. Every couple is also provided assistance in the form of household items to the tune of Rs.5,000.
On that day, a would-be bride developed labour pains minutes before the exchange of garlands. The organisers immediately stopped the mass wedding and ordered pregnancy tests on the 152 brides assembled for the ceremony.
The tests revealed 14 of them were pregnant. "As many as 14 girls were detected to be pregnant during the tests while another girl was found to be a minor," Shahdol district hospital's senior gynaecologist Reena Gautam told.
Later, 138 couples belonging to different religions tied the knot under the scheme.
Local legislator Sunder Singh, the district collector and other government officials were also present during the occasion, sources said.
A local resident alleged that "fake marriages" were being held. He said: "Middlemen produce recently married couples as unmarried, get their marriage solemnised at such functions and then take 'commission' from them."
Faced with allegations of solemnising 'fake marriages', the local authorities ordered the virginity and pregnancy tests. But the move to weed out already-married brides has kicked up a storm with activists taking up the issue.
"First I refused to undergo the test but an officer told me that I would be allowed inside the 'mandap' (place where Hindu marriages are solemnised) only after I am found eligible (virgin and not pregnant)," a 20-year-old woman told activists who toured the area after the incident.
Sachin Jain of the Right to Food campaign working for the cause of tribals in many parts of the state told: "There are better and more discreet ways of doing this. These tests are an insult to womanhood and it shows how the state machinery violates the human rights and dignity and privacy of women."
"The officials should know that in many tribal communities there is a culture of boys and girls living together before they decide to marry," Jain said.
"It is yet another instance of insensitive behaviour of the grassroots bureaucracy of the state, which stands third among all states of the country, in violation of tribal rights," Jain added.
Amita Chapra, member of the State Women Commission, told: "The local Bega tribals were furious. Even if assuming that some are misusing the scheme, it does not mean that others can be subjected to humiliation." Chapra said that the commission would take up the matter with the chief minister.
Shahdol collector Neeraj Debe told: "I have asked my subordinates and district medical authorities to look into reported incidents of virginity and pregnancy tests and action will be taken against those found guilty."
The state government has allotted Rs.25 crore in the budget for the Mukhyamantri Kanyadan Yojana. The government has also increased the scheme's grant amount payable to a girl after marriage from Rs.5,000 to Rs.6,500 from January 2009. As per the state's Economic Survey (2008-09)- 88,460 marriages were solemnised from April 2006 to March 2009.
© IANS July 13th, 2009
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