Posted inGlobal Affairs

The Indian activists fighting to help child brides and grooms win their lives back

Content Warning: Child marriage, mentioning of physical and sexual violence.

Activist Vedika, from the Family Planning Association India, standing in front of a presentation screen, holding a speech in front of them.

One of India’s most successful campaigners against child marriage, Kriti Bharti, runs a one-woman hotline for underage brides and grooms in northwestern India. Her name and number are printed in newspaper articles touting her unique approach: instead of only preaching against the illegal marriages, she fights them in court.

The pandemic has put millions of girls at increased risk of being forced into marriage and never returning to school. Childline India reported a 17% increase in child marriage in June and July last year when the lockdown was eased. According to government data in Rajasthan, one in three women aged 22 to 24 were married before the age of 18.

As Bharti worked with NGOs, she noticed how they were just spreading awareness.  While she believed it is essential, Bharti argues that it is merely treating the problem at the surface level. Thus, in 2011, driven by her experience with children in NGOs, she established Saarthi Trust. Saarthi Trust works at a grassroots level and ensures the rehabilitation and welfare of child marriage victims after rescue. The organization provides education, vocational training and employment opportunities to ensure the independence of victims thereafter.

In 2012, Bharti made headlines on her first case, that of a Rajasthani couple who were forced to wed when he was three and she was one. She was the first woman in India to have her child marriage nullified. As argued by Erdham, according to custom in conservative Hindu communities, while weddings are often solemnized at very young ages, a bride typically is sent to live with her husband’s family and consummate the union in her teens.

Since then, Bharti and her team have been working on visiting villages and schools to discuss the detrimental effects of child marriage and to empower women caught in them. The organization has a helpline for underage brides and grooms to report their cases. As victims reach out, Bharti’s team obtains proof of the marriage and then talks to the bride and bridegroom’s family and then to the community’s elders to convince them. If it fails, Bharti’s team seeks legal help and takes the case to court.

Bharti has had a total of 36 underage unions cancelled and filed cases on behalf of eight more child brides and grooms.

According to UNICEF data, India is home to one-third of the roughly 700 million women worldwide who became wives before turning 18. A 2015-2016 national health survey found that more than one-quarter of Indian women aged 20-24 had been married before their 18th birthday.

Despite laws aimed at curbing child marriage — and the growing awareness that it contributes to sexual abuse, unsafe pregnancies, lower education rates and greater poverty — ancient views of girls as chattel persist among hidebound/more traditionalist Hindus. A lawmaker from India’s Hindu nationalist governing party Bharatiya Janata (BJP) recently stated that he supported child marriage to stamp out “vices” such as interfaith relationships.

Under Indian law, married children can request an annulment up to two years after adulthood, defined as 18 for girls and 21 for boys. The provision is part of a 2006 act that imposes jail time and a fine of up to £800 for anyone caught participating in child marriage — but does not automatically render those marriages invalid.

Advocacy groups such as Girls Not Brides criticize the law for putting the onus on victims to initiate legal proceedings that often require a parent or guardian’s participation — not easy when marriages are the result of community pressure — and court fees and travel costs that can reach into the hundreds of dollars, far exceeding low-income families’ means. Malti Tudu puts “Women’s groups are important avenues from which one can derive energy and support to carry on where the law does not reach.”

While the Indian government considers amending the law, Bharti and the Saarthi Trust fight to educate children about their rights. Her clients’ struggles, she said, resonate with her difficult upbringing.

“Child marriage is like a disease: It’s important to prevent it, but when so many are infected, you have to find a way to cure them.”Kriti Bharti

Looking closer at Rajasthan, more than 1,200 girls have started a movement against child marriages, which saw a spike during the COVID pandemic. Priyanka Bairwa, who is Dalit, considered the lowest caste in India, defied the trend. She then went further, starting a movement of young women and girls called Rajasthan Rising, centred in villages around the city of Karauli’s, to rally for girls’ right to free education, scholarships for higher education and freedom from child marriage, child labour and caste and gender discrimination.

“I launched the campaign because I knew thousands of other girls were facing similar problems, being pulled out of school and forced into early marriage. Education is supposed to be free until grade 8 [age 14] but never is. Schools impose ‘development’ fees. Scholarships promised to students from marginalised communities never arrive on time.” Priyanka told The Guardian. 

The girls took Rajasthan Rising to the streets. They painted slogans on walls calling for free girls’ education and against child marriage. They wrote about discrimination and emailed Rajasthan’s chief minister, Ashok Gehlot, who sent them a note of encouragement. 

These are brave steps. Aangan Trust argue that underage marriage denies girls their fundamental rights and deprives them of their childhood. In most cases, it puts an end to a girl’s formal schooling. It increases risks to her health due to early pregnancy or physical and sexual violence Rajasthan rising stress that district-level bodies should be empowered across the country so that officials can respond faster and prevent child marriages.