Marriage within family: 4 states, UTs from South India top list; women bear the brunt

The rate of consanguineous marriages in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh is more than double of national average of 11 percent.

ByAjay Tomar

Published Aug 01, 2022 | 8:00 AM Updated Aug 02, 2022 | 2:57 PM

Consanguineous marriages are defined as marriage between people who are blood relatives. (Creative Commons)

V Sunitha (name changed) was in 1990 married to her mother’s brother — whom she used to call “uncle” — at the tender age of 16.

The now 49-year-old private school teacher from the Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh regrets many aspects of that alliance, the least of which was the fact that she married a blood relative.

“I had a hard time coping with family issues. My husband (uncle) didn’t readily welcome my thought process, choices, and decisions in the initial days. It remains that way even after so many years, but only on certain issues,” Sunitha told South First.

She is not alone in her regret or when it comes to women and girls being married off to their blood relatives — for whatever reason — in the southern part of the country.

Sunitha is, in fact, part of a startling statistic: five states and Union Territories of South India top the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) list of consanguineous marriages as a percentage of the population.

“Such marriages are quite common in my community/caste. I have a good number of cousins and relatives who are married to their blood relatives. You can find at least two-three marriages in almost every generation,” Sunitha told South First.

The percentage of consanguineous marriages in South Indian states is more than double the national average, which lies at 11 percent.

Why does it still happen?

Noted sociologist R Indira attributed the prevalence of consanguineous marriages — especially in South India — to three factors: caste, class, and inheritance.

“No matter how modern the times we live in, caste is rampant in the social order. People are okay with intra-family marriages because they do not condone alliances from different subcastes, let alone the same caste,” she explained to South First.

“This is because of the notion of ‘purity’, ‘pollution’ and protection — staying in one’s own clan and caste — as they believe their daughters will be secure marrying people they know,” said Indira.

“Afraid of losing family wealth to people outside it” was another factor, the feminist thinker and writer explained.

She said, “As land is a symbol of power in a patriarchal society, wealthy families don’t want their property to move outside the family tree. Such families are afraid of losing their status in society.”

Founder of the Mysuru-based social service organisation Odanadi, KV Stanley, relies on his experience of dealing with the rehabilitation of trafficked women to concur.

“People in many parts of India still have an ancestral mindset, due to which property is seen as an important part of marriage, be it small holdings group or large. They feel happy to give it to their own blood,” he told South First.

Future with consanguineous marriages?

Indira believes that marriage within blood relations has indirect impacts if not a major direct impact.

“If consanguinity prevails, the trend of concentration of wealth and power within one circle will be there,” the former sociology professor at the University of Mysore pointed out, adding that when there is a concentration of wealth, there is disparity.

“Consanguineous marriages are also one way through which social disparity will continue even though there are many other factors due to which it prevails,” she said.

As children in consanguineous alliances are at a health risk, Indira believes women are going to bear the brunt as “the onus of rearing a child is more on them in a patriarchal society”.

Psychosocial impact on women

The physical and medical consequences of consanguineous marriages on women and children are well established. These marriages, however, have a psychosocial impact on women as well.

Dr Pooja Rai K, a consultant psychiatrist at the Mallige Hospital in Bengaluru, talked about a woman’s inability to understand complex relationships, responsibilities, and sudden change of roles in a consanguineous alliance.

“A sudden change where your grandmother becomes your mother-in-law and uncle becomes husband causes confusion. It could strain the bond between spouses, causing a sudden change in expectations as well as the overwhelming of emotions,” she explained to South First.

The doctor pointed out that another disadvantage in marriages where spouses have a generation gap is the difference in expectations and lifestyle.

“What’s trending for the younger generation could become too demanding or taboo for the older spouse. This causes discomfort to young women, alters their personalities, and leads to a disturbed family,” she added.

South India’s consanguineous marriages

As per the NHFS, more than a fourth of ever-married women in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka, and almost one-fifth in Telangana and Puducherry, have tied the knot with blood relatives.

AN Annadurai (name changed), a resident of Tamil Nadu’s Villupuram district, said even though the number of such marriages has come down, some two-three marriages out of every five are still with cousins or blood relatives.

“The family has to pay less dowry if it marries the daughter to a blood relative,” he told South First.

When it comes to marrying the first cousin, the NFHS-5 survey said the average for southern states was more than threefold — every seven women of 25 — of the national average: every two in 25 women.

“One of my cousins married her maternal uncle’s son in 2021. Her elder sister tied the knot with another maternal uncle’s son in 2016,” Sunitha said.

“In earlier times, most families used to be isolated. Social structure was of utmost importance to these families. Their perception about lifestyle and livelihood was not just economist but holistic. Every relationship, whether religious, political, cultural, or economic, was intertwined. So, these families were attracted to each other and it determined the kinship system,” University of Madras anthropology professor MP Damodaran told South First.

The academician added that the “concept of wealth” was important in these groups while deciding whom to marry.