Runaway Brides

Indian girls and their supporters fight to end child marriages

Fellows 2017

By Kristi Eaton

January 09, 2018

Also published by Ms. Magazine

Perched on her boarding-school bed while taking a break from studying, 16-year-old Dhaup Talniya recounts her plans: First, complete her education. Then become a police officer. That way, she says, she can enforce laws in her tiny village in India’s northwest to stop child marriages and motivate girls to get an education.

Despite laws requiring women to be at least 18 years old to marry, India is home to one-third of the world’s child brides – a consequence of debilitating poverty, lack of education, a deeply ingrained patriarchal and caste systems. In Talniya’s state of Rajasthan, along the border with Pakistan, more than half of girls marry before the age of 18, according to UNICEF. Girls who marry as children are more likely to drop out of school, which leads to low-paying jobs and less household decision-making. They also face violence, abuse and compromised health from adolescent pregnancy.

The Veerni Institute based in Rajasthan’s second-largest city, Jodhpur, offers education, health care and boarding for girls ages 10 to 18 from villages across the state, particularly girls vulnerable to exploitation. This includes girls who have been married at a young age. Of the 75 girls currently enrolled at Veerni, 40 are child brides. Veerni doesn’t rail against child marriage or threaten to file a legal complaint against the families; it simply provides a supportive, safe environment for girls to finish their education and live among others their age from all castes, classes and religions.

“We told the parents that we won’t disclose anything. We are just educating them. It’s totally up to you what you do to your daughter, but you need to do one thing: You have the daughter stay here through class 12. That was our condition,” says Veerni Institute director Mahendra Sharma.

Sharma notes that child marriage is closely tied to poverty, so in 2007 when the institute started working with more lower-class communities, it found many underage brides. Today, Veerni girls from a variety of background eat, study, play and sleep together.

“It’s a kind of unique project, particularly in Rajasthan, because it has diversity,” Sharma says. “All the castes are living together without any problem and without knowing what caste they are in.” Since 2005, 105 girls have completed 12th grade through the Veerni Institute; 74 of them have gone on to pursue higher education.

According to a 2011 report from ActionAid India, 103 million Indians were married before age 18 – a number higher than the entire population of the Philippines at the time. Those wed as children constitute 17.5 percent of the total married population, with rural areas accounting for 75 percent of the child marriages in India.

“I imagine the children are tied with handcuffs and we are breaking…and taking them out from those handcuffs of child marriage,” says Kriti Bharti, the founder and managing trustee of Saarthi Trust, a Rajasthan-based nonprofit organization working to end child marriage.

Bharti knows how they feel. As a child, she was abandoned by her father and abused by some people in her village who poisoned her so badly her legs were temporarily paralyzed. She survived and went on to become a rehabilitation psychologist. Bharti gained recognition as the first woman in India to annul a child marriage, and says she has since helped more than 30 child brides receive annulments and has prevented more than 900 child marriages through counseling.

Twenty-eight child marriages occur per minute across the world – more than two of these take place in India, according to ActionAid India report. There are 3,603 new cases of child marriage each day. Changing how women and girls are viewed is key to changing child marriage rates, experts say, since apparently, money isn’t the only motivator.

In 1994, the government of Haryana in northern India started a pilot cash-incentive program, “Our Daughters, Our Wealth,” to try to change families’ view of girls from burdens into assets. The program provided a 25,000 Rupee (approximately $380) bond that could be cashed in when a girl turned 18 if she was still unmarried. But researchers discovered that some girls were staying in school longer and delaying marriage, the cash transfer alone could not change the families’ main priority of securing a marriage for their daughters. Many married them off as soon as they turned 18 and used the cash incentive for the wedding, according to a study from the International Center for Research on Women, which examined the program.

“What we found was that uprooting deep-seated discriminatory norms around girls and marriage requires more than just a simple cash transaction,” researcher Priya Nanda says. The focus needs to be on changing how girls are perceived in society.

That’s the approach at a school for underprivileged girls in Lucknow, in India’s northern Uttar Pradesh state. Prerna Girls School started in 2003 with just 80 students. Today it has more than 800 girls enrolled, ages 3 to 20. The girls who attend Prerna are from some of the most marginalized groups in India; many had never attended school before.

“In India, there is a bias, gender bias. Since birth, they are being biased against in the family, so I teach them how to be equal,” principal Rakhee Panjwani says. This means teaching the girls to speak up if they have not been given enough food to eat or have more chores than their brother.

The girls attend Prerna in the afternoon so they can complete their work, mostly as domestic help, in the morning. Panjwani is proud to say that none of her girls are married. Instead they are focused on completing grade 12 and going on to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees.

“When they came to our school, they didn’t even dream of completing class 10 because of family pressure, society and financial problems. They were not confident enough to go for higher studies,” she says. “But we taught them that they can.”