Struggle to end child marriages in rural India

Struggle to end child marriages in rural India
Activist Kriti Bharti (left) is helping Santa Devi Meghwal (right) to get her marriage annulled.

NEW DELHI The day Santa Devi Meghwal turned 16, she began trotting out excuses to her parents: "I need to finish next year's exam. I am not feeling well. Let's wait till after Diwali. Let me lose a bit of weight."

For three years, she put off the inevitable - going to the home of the man she was married to when she was just 11 months old.

Her husband and in-laws kept visiting her home in Rohicha Kallan village, in the Jodhpur district, to fetch the "bride" and became increasingly indignant at having to leave empty-handed every time.

A few weeks ago, Santa, now 19, decided to put an end to the excuses. She told her parents she wanted out of the marriage with her 28-year-old husband.

Though child marriages have been illegal since 1929 - the minimum legal age has been 18 for women and 21 for men since 1979 - they are still common in rural areas of Rajasthan and other parts of India. And under the law, such a marriage is not automatically null and void even though it is illegal; the bride or groom still have to apply for an annulment.

According to Unicef's figures for this year, 47 per cent of girls in India were married before they turned 18, the official age for marriage, while 18 per cent were married before the age of 15.

In Rajasthan, estimates vary, but the figure is generally believed to be higher.

A variety of reasons account for the continued existence of child marriage. These include parents' fear that an adolescent daughter might have an affair and bring shame upon them, and the anxiety that, since other little girls are being married off, if they fail to do the same thing, their daughter might grow up unable to find a man who is not already betrothed.

The custom is deep-rooted, and few young women have the courage like Santa to defy society.

Here and there, though, girls are rebelling. Last month, in Jamshedpur, in the state of Jharkhand, 14-year-old Duli Hembram wrote to her school teacher saying she wanted to study and not go through with the marriage her parents had arranged.

The teacher successfully persuaded Duli's parents to let her continue her education.

Santa's courage stemmed from two emotions. She disliked what she had seen of her husband Saanval Ram and her in-laws, and she still dreams of becoming a teacher after graduating in art and English.

"My in-laws told me that I would have to stop studying when I went to live with them. I don't want to be a housewife. My parents were horrified at first and refused to support me," she said.

After reading about social activist Kriti Bharti and her Saarthi voluntary group in Jodhpur, Santa contacted her.

Ms Bharti is known for being the woman who managed to get a child marriage legally annulled in 2012, the first such case in Rajasthan. She helps any child bride who wants an annulment to fight the case in the family courts.

"As a psychologist, I was able to counsel Santa and, most importantly, her parents. I explained why they should respect her feelings and ambitions, and eventually they came round. They love her and want to do what is best," said Ms Bharti.

While there have been previous cases of "rebel child brides", Santa's case made headlines in Rajasthan and elsewhere because other cases involved girls whose marriages were arranged for them in their early teens, while she was a mere infant when married off.

The next hearing of the case is fixed for Tuesday. Santa is both elated at the prospect of escaping her marriage and worried.

"Saanval Ram has been threatening me, saying he will use force to take me away because I have insulted him," she said.

Ms Bharti has also been threatened as she is seen as the "woman from the city who has come to corrupt village girls with modern ideas".

Meanwhile, the Rohicha Kallan village council has imposed a fine of 1.6 million rupees (S$33,700) on Santa's parents for going ahead with the annulment.

"In these cases, the honour of the village is at stake and they start acting like kangaroo courts," said Jaipur-based civil rights activist Kavita Srivastava.

The Indian government has been fighting child marriages because of their deleterious effects on girls.

They drop out of school and often have babies before they are physically and mentally ready, jeopardising themselves and their children.

Thanks to the work of women's rights activists, some villages in Rajasthan have declared themselves "child marriage free". In these villages, members of the council take a solemn vow never to allow a child marriage.

While this is progress of sorts, for Ms Bharti, it fails to answer the problem of child marriages that were arranged long ago. If a girl wants to extricate herself from it, the village council is unlikely to support her.

"The custom is so deeply entrenched in their thinking that they don't want to disturb marriages already contracted. So, there are still tens of thousands of girls out there who will have to go through with the marriage by going to live with the husband," she said.

Under the law, an annulment is quick if both sides agree to it. If one side does not, it can be an ordeal.

"The courts don't make a distinction between annulment and divorce. They treat the attempt to annul a child marriage like a divorce, and it becomes unnecessarily complicated because they try conciliation and counselling, which is inappropriate," said Ms Bharti.

However long it takes, Santa is prepared to stay the course.

"I am not against arranged marriages. But whenever I get married, I want my parents to consult me," she said. "I want to have a say. I feel that is my right."

This article was first published on May 24, 2015.
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