Roma 'bride market' comes to town in rural Bulgaria



Roma `bride market` comes to town in rural Bulgaria Mogila: The first Saturday in Lent feels like any other market day in this tiny village in central Bulgaria, but fruit and vegetable stalls are nowhere to be seen among the milling patrons.

Instead, young eligible bachelors from the Roma community are here to find themselves a wife at a traditional "bride market".

More than 2,000 Roma travellers converged on Mogila on one of the first sunny weekends of spring, the air abuzz with conversation by men, women and children decked out in their finest clothes for one of the year's social highlights.

The "bride market" -- held four times a year on religious holidays during the spring and summer -- is a chance for the nomadic tinkers to meet, catch up on gossip and notably play matchmaker for adolescent sons and daughters.

Theirs is a deeply Christian orthodox and rigidly patriarchal society where young people are only allowed to marry within the group.

Teenage girls are strictly segregated from boys, with many even taken out of school at age 11 or 12 so there is no chance they could "bring disgrace" on their family.

So, for adolescents of both sexes the "bride market" is a rare occasion to have fun and flirt like normal teenagers.

The custom may raise eyebrows among women's rights groups, given concerns about forced marriage and underage pregnancy.

Research on the custom is scarce, and the tinkers themselves are suspicious of outsiders and reluctant to talk about the money that changes hands or reveal the exact ages of the girls involved.

One of the few who has studied the bride markets for several years is Alexey Pamporov, an expert in demographics and sociology at the Open Society Institute in Sofia -- a branch of philanthropist George Soros' non-governmental organisation focused on improving conditions of marginalised communities.

He insists they have nothing to do with forced marriages or selling under-age girls for sex, precisely because the tinkers are such a close-knit and deeply religious community.

"We can't speak of forced marriages. The girls are not abused in any way and their consent is required in 100 percent of the cases," Pamporov said.

He concedes that underage marriages may have been common in the past, but says they are much rarer nowadays. And money received for a bride plays more a symbolic role as a sort of dowry, proving that the young man would be able to provide for his future family, he added.

PTI