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In some parts of Rajasthan, girls are married as young as eight years old. Some have grown up to declare freedom
When Shobha read the paper on her way to college in Jaipur, on an unusually warm October morning recently, she was instantly flooded with memories of the day that changed the course of her life. The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) had decided to include the story of Lakshmi Sangara—the first child bride in India to have had her marriage legally annulled, only recently, in April 2012—in a textbook on Human Rights and Gender Studies for class 11. The second chapter of the textbook, that includes a module on women’s rights and health has included Lakshmi’s story as a case study, citing her ordeal in getting the marriage annulled. It was reading about Lakshmi’s case in the papers that had initially inspired Shobha to muster enough courage to dial the helpline number and ask for help. Married at eight, she too was a child bride till she decided to call it off at the age of 21.

It was a special day, she reminisces for a moment. She was being allowed to wear nail polish for the first time and was dressed in brand new clothes. So were her elder sisters and other cousins. “It was a daawat and the festivities felt like it may have been Diwali,” she says, only to squirm a bit, almost disgusted by the thought now. That was seventeen years ago and she was only eight years old, being married on that day to a boy only two years older than her. “It was an auspicious day, two of my older cousins were set to be married that day but the family later decided to get all 16 girls of the family married on the same day to avoid marital expenditure and dowry,” she says. “Barring the two older cousins, the rest of us were child brides. At that time, however, for us it was just another game for fun.”

Twenty five years old now, Shobha is one of the few women in Rajasthan who have managed to muster up the courage to step forward and demand the annulment of their marriages. Married in 1998, on Akshaya Tritya, celebrated in the month of May, she belongs to a family of Jat farmers from the village Rajwa, a village some 20 kilometers off Jodhpur. “I was in class three at the time, so the family decided to keep me back at home and send me to my husband’s family only after I turned 16,” says Shobha. Her husband’s family was also a family of Jat farmers, from Keru, a village close to Rajwa. When the time came to head to her sasural, Shobha, one of the few girls in the family who refused to drop out of school, clearing her board exams with the help of a school run by an NGO in the village, negotiated with her family to buy more time. “I was always closer to my brothers in the family and fought with my parents like a boy. I wanted to complete my graduation and then go to my husband’s family,” she says proudly, adding that she managed to complete the first two years of graduation, working part-time as a receptionist in an office in Jodhpur to fund her education till her father, worried that she might end up having an affair with a stranger in the city, put his foot down and forced a Gauna on her. Gauna is a ceremony in which the bride (usually married as a child) is formally sent off to her husband’s house to officially consummate the marriage.

When Shobha, partially excited about being married, reached her husband’s home, she was in for a rude shock to realize that her husband was illiterate and extremely violent with her. “He was like a wild animal who would physically and sexually abuse me, cursing me for being more educated than him,” she says. While her family would hear nothing of it, she claims to have struggled to survive in the household for about a year till she read about Lakshmi Sangara of Luni village in Jodhpur who stepped forward with her husband and decided to legally call off her marriage, under The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006. At 17, Lakshmi is the first known girl in the history of child marriages in India to have approached the court and had her marriage declared null and void, in April 2012. “I read about her in the newspaper and decided to approach the NGO that helped her in getting the marriage annulled,” says Shobha, recounting how she ran away to Jodhpur with the help of a male cousin, and found refuge in NGO Saarthi Trust, that helped her get her marriage annulled a year later, in November 2013 . “It was a tough time but I managed to get it done nearly three years after my Gauna,” says Shobha, who is now studying for her Masters’ degree from Jaipur National University. “Lakshmi was a great inspiration for me, I never knew there was a way out of my marriage as even my family was not supporting me,” she says.

It is the example of girls like Shobha that perhaps prompted the CBSE to include Lakshmi’s story on page 207 of the textbook. According to a member of the CBSE Syllabus Committee for the subject, “Real time case studies do not only provide students with coming-of-age lessons in society but also reflects that struggle against [the] odds leads to the path of success.”

Married at the age of one, to three year-old Rakesh from Satlana village nearby, Lakshmi did not know about her marriage till she turned 16 and the time of her Gauna arrived. Illiterate, both Lakshmi and her brother tried reasoning with their parents, but in vain. They eventually contacted Kriti Bharti of Saarthi Trust who was a child rights activist in Jodhpur, speaking against child marriage on television. “I wasn’t sure about how to help Lakshmi who was already married and thought of stalling the Gauna somehow, till she was prepared,” says Bharti who also finds mention in the textbook. While Lakshmi refused to go and live with a husband she didn’t know, Bharti started researching the subject only to find that child marriages could actually be annulled.

Child marriages in India were outlawed in India in 1929 during the colonial rule but the Government of India introduced the provision for annulling these marriages only in 2007. Annulment, as against a divorce, declares the marriage completely null and void, and a child bride can apply for an annulment till the age of 21. “I thought we had hit a gold mine of sorts with this provision and surprisingly, no one even knew about it, not even the district court magistrates,” says 27 year-old Bharti. According to the provision, termed as The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, any individual who was child when they were ‘married’ can approach the district family court directly to nullify the marriage. In case of a minor, it is the parents or a guardian who can approach the court. The Act also mandates the deployment of Child Marriage Prohibition Officers in areas where the practice is prevalent, particularly on the occasion Akshaya Tritya which is considered a very auspicious day for marriages in the Hindu calendar.

Following the success of Lakshmi’s case, Bharti began a helpline number called Apna Saarthi and promoted it via the local media. Through the helpline she has received over 30 requests for help on annulment. Shobha’s case was one of them.

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), India is one of the countries in Asia with the largest number of child brides, at about 47 per cent. The UNFPA, in March 2013, also projected that by 2020 nearly 140 million girls under the age of 18 would be married, of which 50 million will be under the age of 15. According to the Annual Health Survey (AHS) conducted by the Union government in 2013, Rajasthan is the only state in the country where the mean age for marriage for both boys and girls is lower than than the legal age—17.7 for girls (when it is 18) and 20.7 for boys ( when it is 21). According to the survey, every fourth girl in rural Rajasthan is getting married below the age of 18. While UNICEF claims that the incidence of child marriages has considerably decreased in Rajasthan from 58.4 per cent in the last decade to almost 22 per cent now, it still rates second after Jharkhand for the number of child marriages in the country.

Bharti blames these figures on deep-rooted traditional customs that support Rajasthan’s patriarchal society. “The most popular one is Aata-Saata, in which brides are exchanged between households. This is a very common practice in rural households where combined weddings take place either to save on marital expenditure or in exchange for money,” she says. Many a times, young girls are exchanged on both ends.

Fifteen year-old Bhawna (name changed on request) is one such girl. At 13, Bhawna was married off to a 55 year-old man by her grandfather, while in Ajmer, in exchange for Rs 2 lakh and a bride for her uncle from Bikampur village near the city. Her parents lived in Jaisalmer where her father worked as a barber. When the parents protested against the match on the day of the wedding, they were locked up in a different room and the marriage was conducted. “My parents forcibly took me away the next day, I couldn’t possibly marry a man who dyed his hair,” says Bhawna. The ordeal that followed was death threats and being on the run, says Bhawna’s 35 year-old mother Parwati. Currently in Jodhpur, Bhawna and her family are working with Saarthi on getting Bhawna’s marriage annulled.” The community and the family has ostracized them and the husband’s family has been demanding that the money given in the wedding be returned,” says Bharti. “We had filed this girl’s case in the family court almost a year ago but there has been no order [issued] because the husband’s family is not cooperating,” she says.

Interestingly, Parwati’s only objection to the marriage is that the husband is 55 years old. “I would have agreed if the boy were close to her age. The groom was older than the girl’s father” says the mother of three, including two boys. Parwati herself was married to her husband, within the Nai (barber) caste at the age of 12. “It is often better to get a girl married early. You have several distractions these days — boys, films and even cell phones — till how long can a parent bear the responsibility of a young daughter?” she reasons.

Parwati’s attitude towards her daughter’s marriage is typical. According to Sanjay Nirala, a child officer at UNICEF in Rajasthan, child marriage is like an invincible evil in rural Rajasthan because of the attitude of society towards marriage. “Illiteracy and poverty are few of the reasons,” he says. “This becomes even more grave because marriage in our society is not about the individual but the entire family. Often being a Saas or sasur is a matter of pride, a way of commanding respect within the family and consequently in society as it means you have lived a good and respectable life. No one would be interested in the well being of the child, forget it if it’s a girl,” he says.

Children in Rajasthan fall prey to another custom that allows child marriage. According to common belief in rural Rajasthan, a marriage conducted in a household that has recently seen a death can purify the household again and end the period of mourning. Two girls, aged 16 and 18 in Jodhpur were married off by their grandmother while the parents had gone to Haridwar to conduct the last rites of the grandfather. “The girls were school-going girls and were married off to boys who had not been to school at all. The parents here were sensible and had the marriage annulled in February 2013,” says Bharti.

While efforts to counter child marriage and spread awareness about it have been on for a few years in Rajasthan, the option of annulment is yet to find a foothold in the state. While the Act has been in place since 2007, the first case of annulment was taken up only in 2012. Even now, the numbers continue to remain scattered and scarce, without any cohesive government action. “The main problem is lack of education and awareness,” reasons Purnendu Shekhar, creator of the popular television show Balika Vadhu. The show, which tells the tale of a child bride finding her way through adulthood, was first aired in 2007 and tries to tackle the issue, giving out a clear social message against the practice. “People are still not educated enough to be able to take a step against this practice, let alone declaring the marriage null and void,” says Shekhar who dabbled in the subject briefly when the male protagonist on the show annulled his marriage with one of the female leads. “That was a short track in the show, I am now looking at a full-fledged part on the matter in the story,” he added.

Bharti, who has been on the forefront of promoting the right to annulment in child marriages, claims that caste plays a very important role in making the battle tougher. “I often receive death threats when fighting a case for annulment. In one of the cases, a false case was filed against me,” she says. While in Shobha’s case, both Shobha and Bharti faced severe resistance from the Jat Panchayat that demanded a punishment ransom of Rs 10 lakh from the family, till the courts intervened, Bhawna’s case has become tougher because the Nai community has boycotted the family. As per figures of the Annual Health Survey, the percentage of child marriages in Rajasthan is the highest in the districts of Bhilwara, Bundi, Dausa and Jhalawar where there is a stronghold of caste panchayats. To make matters worse, claims Bharti, it is believed that a woman cannot marry more than once.

“Unless a legal divorce or annulment happens, many husbands give away their wives for money to another man in case a marriage is not working out. The second man can pass on the wife to a third in exchange for money to be given to the first and second,” she says. “Since the belief is that a woman cannot marry more than once, she is exchanged in this manner under the garb of a custom called mala shadi which is nothing but trafficking of sorts,” she adds. This is one of the reasons, Bharti claims, why many families do not want annulment of marriage for their daughters. The stigma of a failed marriage haunts them.

Perhaps it is the stigma of even an annulled marriage that has prompted Lakshmi and her family to avoid any form of publicity. Lakshmi did get married last year to a man of her age and choice last year. While she keeps away from the media glare, she is married to a local businessman in Pali in Rajasthan and is a home maker. Shobha on the other hand, has decided not to marry for the time being, mostly haunted by the caste panchayat’s hold in her community. “It is very difficult to find an educated man within the Jat community and I cannot think of marrying someone from another caste. The first marriage was hard enough to deal with, with the Panchayat threatening to kill me,” she says. Bhawna too hopes that her family would let her continue with her studies. Enrolled with a coaching centre in Jodhpur, she hopes to clear her class 10 board exams through open school. “I would like to be a counsellor and help girls like me,” she says. Parwati, however, remains unsure of her daughter’s future for the time being. “We have two boys growing up and have no support from the family or the community, let’s see how things go. We definitely cannot afford to keep a young girl in the house,” she says.