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Fri28Nov2014

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The barber's wife: Sex advisor to child brides

By Pamela Bhagat

In the Terai region of Uttar Pradesh, where no family planning campaign has ever penetrated, it is the Naun or barber's wife who accompanies child brides to their husbands' homes at puberty and advises them on family planning and family welfare. This traditional practice does not seem likely to change in the foreseeable future

An assorted cluster of thatch-roofed mud huts with hardly any sanitation, drainage or lighting arrangements, and narrow footpaths leading to the outside world -- this is what a typical village in eastern Uttar Pradesh is like. Khawaspur is one such village where the traditional concept of a village as a self-sufficient unit continues. It has the requisite complement of occupational caste workers available to meet the needs of the villagers from birth to death.

Banki is the local Naun from the barber (Nai) community. She comes from a long line of Nauns and has been a practising Naun for "more years than she has fingers and toes". Unlettered but skilled, she is a vital part of the social fabric of rural life. During weddings, it is Banki who winds the bride's hair into tiny braids, traces intricate designs with henna on her palms and knows exactly what the priest will require during the marriage ceremony.

No Hindu wedding in the Terai border belt (the districts of Pilibhit, Bahraich, Shrawasti, Balrampur, Gonda, Dewaria and Basti) is complete without a Naun, even though most are Muslim.

Despite the abolition of the zamindari (feudal landlords) system, this region seems to have stood still in time, at least for some castes. The Nai is a journeyman who goes from door to door and village to village, and can minister to the wants of more than one village.

Many other castes have gradually moved away from their traditional occupations. Few Bhangis (scavengers) now continue to clean lavatories because people defecate in fields. A single Baniya (moneylender) can finance operations within a radius of 20 kilometres or more, due to increased mobility.

Brahmins used to officiate at marriages and other ceremonies at the homes of their patrons and received the traditional compensation in cash and kind. Many village Brahmins have given up these functions. They regard as demeaning the practice of accepting food and charity or settling marriages, cooking food at weddings and officiating as priests. Some have taken to cultivation and other occupations such as tailoring and shopkeeping.

But the Naun, wife of the Nai, has assumed increased importance. One of the main reasons for this is the continued practice of child marriage. According to local lore, this custom began when a ruler from across the border in Nepal permitted his soldiers to abduct young unmarried girls as brides. To protect their daughters, people in the Terai region started marrying them off early.

Another explanation for the continued practice of child marriage -- not permitted by law -- is that older men often exploit young girls for sexual favours; and the married status is seen as a deterrent.

Child-brides can be as young as a few months to eight years old. A few are older, and they live in their maternal homes till such time as they attain puberty after which they are dispatched to their marital homes after the 'gauna' ceremony.

This is where the Naun plays a pivotal role. She accompanies the bride to her new home and functions as a companion, adviser and confidante. But most importantly, she provides sex education. Depending on the bride's physical maturity and age, the Naun either protects her from sexual initiation or encourages her to submit to the husband. Each Naun services three to four families and in return, receives a fixed proportion of the annual harvest. This interdependence is historic and continues through generations.

According to Banki, fertility control has a long tradition here but is practised only after the birth of the first child, preferably a son. It is practised for traditional social reasons. For example, many sons are not wanted as this would lead to a fragmenting of family resources such as land and cattle. Fertility control is also seen as desirable to help women recuperate between pregnancies. Daughters are not considered a bane or boon, but a means of achieving divine blessings through 'Kanyadaan' (giving the daughter away in marriage).

Some of the indigenous traditional methods to limit family size are long periods of breast feeding, withdrawal, segregation of the living areas of men and women; even special douches and poultices for the 'morning after', made out of the locally abundant katha (an essential ingredient in betel leaf preparation).

In the Terai belt, these means and motivations for contraception are still current probably because no family planning campaign has penetrated this region but more likely due to their cultural familiarity and acceptability.

Banki has never seen a condom and isn't quite sure of its efficacy. She is doubtful of the possibility of local men adopting this method: "Fertility control and contraception is seen as a woman's concern here. Men will never consider its use." For now -- and in the foreseeable future -- it is the Naun who holds the key to family planning and family welfare.

Women's Feature Service