An NGO in Rajasthan is helping annul child marriages, but the practice is unlikely to die out soon

Eighteen-year-old Pintu Devi, the daughter of daily wage labourer Sohanlal Bishnoi of Pithawas village in Rajasthan, is waiting to get her marriage annulled. She was wed when she was just six to a 10-year-old boy who came from a family which was involved in criminal activities. Pintu grew up not even knowing she was married. It was only when she came of age and her parents wanted to pack her off to her husband’s house that she got to know the truth. Now, 12 years later, with the help of the Saarthi Trust — run by rehabilitation psychologist Dr Kriti Bharati — Pintu Devi has registered a petition in Jodhpur's Family Court, seeking annulment of a marriage she doesn't even remember as having taken place. The court has accepted her plea and issued a summons to her “husband”.

To argue her case, Pintu Devi’s lawyers are making use of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA) 2006, the law which replaced the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929. This law allows child marriages to be nullified provided either of the individuals appeals to the court within two years of reaching maturity. If Pintu Devi succeeds, hers will be the 37th case of the annulment of a child marriage.

But, for a long time this revolutionary law remained on paper partly because not many knew about it. And also because, for the law to come into play, the people involved had to approach the court for the annulment. This was something which most parents were reluctant to do.  It required courage for a girl to defy her parents and walk out of such a marriage.

Although the PCMA was enacted in 2006, it was only in 2012 that the first child marriage was annulled. Laxmi Sargara of Jodhpur was the very first beneficiary of this piece of legislation. She was just one when she was married to a boy two years older. After her 18th birthday, when her parents asked her to go to her in-laws’ home she ran away and appealed to Dr Kriti for help.

Dr Kriti Bharati had a traumatic childhood herself. So when she grew up and earned a doctorate in rehabilitation psychology, she decided to devote herself to rehabilitating women and children who needed help. She was working mostly with trafficked women and child labourers when Lakshmi approached her.

 An NGO in Rajasthan is helping annul child marriages, but the practice is unlikely to die out soon

According to the National Family Health Survey (2015-16) 26.8 percent of girls in India are married before their 18th birthday. In Rajasthan, the percentage is 35. REUTERS

“I didn’t know anything about rescuing women who had been married off as children,” Dr Kriti, 30, told me over the phone. “I consulted many lawyers. Even they didn’t know. Everyone kept suggesting the girl could get a divorce. But in our society, 'divorce' carries a stigma and I felt that the girl should not have to carry that burden as well for no fault of her own.”

It was then that with the help of lawyers, she found the relevant part of the PCMA law and Laxmi was freed. Next year, Laxmi even got married to a man of her choosing. Dr Kriti entered the Limca Book of Records as the first person to get a child marriage annulled in India. Six years later, Rajasthan is the only state in India which has had so many cases of such annulment and all of them have been steered to the courts by the Saarthi Trust.

Getting a marriage annulled is not easy, Dr Kriti said. She spoke about Sushila Bishnoi, who ran away from home when her parents wanted her to consummate her marriage with a man to whom she had been wed at the age of 12. The problem here was that her husband denied he had ever been married to her. With the help of Dr Kriti and her team, Sushila hit on the bright idea of trawling his Facebook account for evidence of their marriage. She found a treasure trove in the form of pictures from seven years ago when they had been married. The court accepted this evidence and she was freed.

According to the National Family Health Survey (2015-16) 26.8 percent of girls in India are married before their 18th birthday. In Rajasthan, the percentage is 35. Boys too are married off early, but it is the girls who bear the brunt. According to the NFHS data, 7.9 percent women in the 15-19 age group were already mothers or pregnant at the time of survey. The southern district of Bhilwara in Rajasthan is the worst in the country with 37 percent of its girls, between the ages of 10-17, married. Those working in the field have also noticed a hitherto unstudied alarming rise in the number of underage marriages happening in urban areas across the country. Also contrary to the usual perception that it is the poor and the illiterate who get their underage children married, the 2011 data shows that there has been a notable rise in child marriages in richer states too. For instance, according to the study by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), in India’s third richest state Maharashtra, 16 districts figure in a national ranking of top 20 districts reporting a rise in underage marriages over a decade (up to 2011).

So why are parents so anxious to marry off their underage children even though they know what they are doing is illegal? Perhaps the root cause is the perception that daughters are a burden.  Dowry is an important factor. So is “tradition” which dictates girls should be married as early as possible. The younger the girl, the lesser the parents to have to pay. Besides, the marriage of underage children has to be kept simple and secret as it is illegal, so wedding expenses are often reduced. But the biggest push factor is the underlying panic on the part of the parents who are anxious to shed the burden of controlling the girl’s sexuality and guarding her chastity when she comes of age.

Today in Rajasthan, child marriages are conducted surreptitiously. No outsiders are invited. Usually there are no photographs, invitation cards or grand feasts. The location is kept secret and sometimes an already married couple (who are both majors) are kept as "standbys" in case of a police raid. According to Dr Kriti, even after a child marriage is prevented and the parents are counselled, there is no guarantee that they won't change the date and venue and go through with it anyway.

Obviously there has to be a nexus which specialises in conducting these illegal weddings. Muniamma, who comes from Salem in Tamil Nadu, told me about a temple where parents get their underage children married secretly during the night. The police and other authorities turn a blind eye because they themselves might have used that temple for the same purpose. In a slum in Bengaluru, girls aged 14 and 15 are routinely married off, and they get pregnant by the next year. In Hyderabad while investigating the marriage of a minor Muslim girl who was married off to a 65-year-old sheikh and whisked out of the country, the investigating agencies uncovered a whole nexus of agents, touts, kazis, visa, passport arrangers and others. This nexus specialised in locating poor Muslim girls and getting them married to rich visiting sheikhs.

And what happens if the children protest or someone saves them from such a marriage? Often the families are boycotted by their own community, the girls are stigmatised and if they are from poor economic circumstances, their chances of getting educated and finding another life are also jeopardised. More often than not, the parents withdraw their support and the girls are left on their own. The issue is compounded if they have also got pregnant at that young age. Rehabilitation of these young runaway brides is of primary importance.

Child marriage is a problem which has no easy solution. The Sharada Act, also known as the Child Marriage Restraint Act, was passed in 1929. Much water has flowed under the bridge since then. India got her independence. There have been amendments to the act and a new law itself was passed. Yet, 89 years later, underage children are still being married off in the name of tradition or “for their own safety and good”.

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Updated Date: Jun 26, 2018 14:17:31 IST