By Nita Bhalla
Is marriage a guarantee that a woman won't be prostituted?
It's a question that played heavily on my mind recently when I went to the remote village of Wadia in India's western region of Gujarat to cover a mass wedding and engagement ceremony of 21 girls, which was aimed at breaking a centuries-old tradition of prostitution.
I arrived in the small, neglected hamlet on the eve of the big ceremony. Preparations were well underway.
Soon-to-be-brides sat inside the mud-walled compounds of their homes surrounded by singing female relatives, with "haldi" or turmeric paste smeared on the faces and arms - a South Asian pre-wedding ritual believed to make the skin "glow".
Sporting long, curled moustaches, large turbans and gold studs in their ears, old men idled on charpoys outside, smoking beedis under the shade of trees.
They told me they were from the Saraniya community - a once nomadic group who inhabited the arid landscape of Gujarat and the neighbouring Rajasthan.
The men worked for the various warring factions which ruled over this drought-prone region prior to India's independence from Britain in 1947, sharpening their daggers and swords.
The Saraniya women were "entertainers" for the feuding warlords - dancing and singing, as well as providing sexual pleasure for their employers.
Post independence, they were given land by the government to provide a better means of income, but some of Wadia's men still continued to solicit their sisters and daughters.
Stories emerged of how the men would take the unmarried women to the nearby city of Palanpur, 115 km (70 miles) away, to pimp them to local businessmen and traders.
IS MARRIAGE THE SOLUTION?
A local charity, the Vicharta Samuday Samarthan Manch (VSSM), whose brainchild the mass marriage was and who funded the 900,000 ($1730) rupee event, said securing the girls with husbands would end Wadia's flesh trade.
Married women in the village were not trafficked, VSSM members said, trying to reassure me that the new husbands would not follow "tradition" and exploit their young brides.
The local authorities supported the logic and many officials attended the colourful ceremony which saw eight couples married and 13 engaged in a giant marquee.
But walking through Wadia, I wondered whether marriage really is the answer, or whether it’s more of a quick-fix solution.
The village, like many across the country, has clearly been bypassed by India's economic boom over the last two decades.
Women spoke of clinics and schools being too far to reach, while men said there were few jobs and opportunities to help lift them out of poverty.
Their biggest need, they said, was water. Due to a lack of boreholes and wells, women collected water from sewage-filled pools, while men worked wilted fields of millet with little or no irrigation.
They spoke of discrimination and difficulties in finding work due to Wadia's reputation of being a "prostitute village".
Poverty and stigma are clearly drivers in why this practice had continued for so long in Wadia, and development initiatives are desperately needed in this community of 150 families.
Provision of basic services such as clinics, electricity, clean water, schools, as well as jobs are essential.
But what seems to be even more important is the need to empower Wadia's women - ensure girls complete their education and provide women with new ways to generate income such as animal husbandry, basket weaving or dairy farming.
Enforcing laws on trafficking, punishing pimps and not the sex workers and enforcing strict penalties would also help.
But most challenging is tackling the root cause - the deeply-rooted patriarchal beliefs of this region, where women are treated as objects to be used for personal gain and have little decision-making power over their lives.
Women who had been treated as "informal assets" by the Saraniya men before may likely become "formal assets" which husbands can now exploit freely, with social sanction.
Across the world, boyfriends and husbands are found to be involved in sex trafficking their girlfriends and wives. Why is this case likely to be any different?
Marriage unfortunately is no guarantee.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not Thomson Reuters Foundation