The smells and colors—bold yellow turmeric smeared on hands and faces, a strip of red powdered vermillion applied to the hairline—offer the first clues that a wedding is about to happen or has just happened. The girls at this event are often too young to understand marriage, but they’re old enough to know what the spices being ceremoniously applied to their bodies signify.
This is what Saumya Khandelwal, a 27-year-old Reuters photographer based in New Delhi, heard from girls who weren’t as lucky as she was.
Khandelwal was born in Lucknow, a city in the same state but a world apart from the district of Shravasti. Growing up, she and her friends understood that child marriage happened in India, just not to anyone they knew. But 120 miles away, along the impoverished border of Nepal, girls as young as eight years old are married off by their families.
In 2015, Khandelwal started traveling back and forth from New Delhi to the state of Uttar Pradesh, home to both her and the Taj Mahal, to photograph these young brides. “If I was born in Shravasti, these girls could have been me,” Khandelwal says.
Technically, child marriage is illegal in India. A law passed in 1929, the government passed a law banning the practice, and it was updated again in 2006. Today, both women under 18 and men under 21 cannot legally get married. Parents or older spouses can be punished with up to two years in prison for coordinating or allowing arrangements that ignore these restrictions.
A woman lies in a labor room just before her Caesarean delivery at a hospital in Shravasti. At least a quarter of girls age 10 to 17 in the region are married, according to census data.
Despite a plunge in the rate of child marriages over the past decade, there are more underage brides in India than any other country in the world. More than a quarter of Indian girls are married by the age of 18, according to the organization Girls Not Brides.