JODHPUR: At 18, Shobha Choudhary is the first and only girl to have finished school in her village Rajokha. In her first year of computer studies, Shobha could be any regular teenager. Only, she's been married since 1998 when she was in Class III and the boy in Class I. Her husband is a Class I dropout, now a stone quarry worker. Banned by her grandmother from studying after Class VI, Shobha's brother tutored her at night. She passed Class X as a private student with her father and brother's support. There was no stopping her after that. On pretext of appearing for a test, she ran away to Jodhpur, staying at an NGO hostel. She wants to be a policewoman, "to stop child marriages."
For centuries, in these parts of rural Rajasthan, child brides were silent puppets, stifled within the walls of patriarchy. But now young girls, their mothers and 'bahus' are raising their voices loud enough to be heard beyond the courtyard. They've emerged from the shadows, intent on ending child marriages that force 15-year-olds to become mothers, often even earlier. They are convincing parents to send girls to school, and strongly protesting against marrying off younger kids in the family. Girl after girl has one conviction: ensure there's no child marriage in the next generation.
India's child marriage figures are frightening. A Unicef report released in October recorded that nearly 25 million girls in India were married in 2007 by the age of 18, noting that children may be engaged or married before they turned 10. More than a third of the world's child brides are from India, the report added.
A paper published in British medical journal Lancet in March said 44.5% of Indian women who recently reached 20-24 years of age were married by the time they were 18. Of these, 22.6% were wed before 16, and 2.6% before 13. The legal age for girls to marry in India is 18, but where child marriages are the norm, as in rural Rajasthan, legal age has been a minor quibble.
Initiatives such as the Veerni Project are helping power the change. When the NGO first started in 1983, their vehicle was stoned and threats made against volunteers. But perseverance paid off. Counsellors now are welcomed on their weekly visits to villages where they discuss everything from women's overall health to why child marriage is a no-no. Veerni has a girls hostel in Jodhpur where they bring young girls after class VI or VIII to complete their schooling, free of cost.
"We protect them from marriage till Class XII," says Jacqueline de Chollet, Veerni's chief patron. In the hostel, girls are also educated about their own health and nutrition, and reproductive issues. As girls become responsible, parents too realise their healthy girls are no liability.
The fight isn't easy. Sharda, 18, of village Akhtali, managed to stave off going to her 'in-laws' but now they've demanded she either join her husband or pay up the mandatory Rs 50,000 to call off the marriage, a marriage Sharda doesn't recall.
The panchayat has apparently told the 'in-laws' they can't do anything either way. It's all outright illegal but Sharda's in a fix. Her parents died of AIDS a couple of years ago, she lives with an ageing grandmother and has simply said she'll commit suicide if need be, but will not go to her 'husband', who is physically challenged and hearing impaired as well.
The biggest hurdle for these girls is the absence of legal help. Guddi,17 is a Bishnoi, daughter of a handicapped father. Her brother-in-law has been jailed for 25 years. Her family, as is her community, is known for petty crime and opium trade. In Class XII, Guddi is worrying herself sick. She managed to escape to Veerni, which had adopted her village and brought her to their Jodhpur girls hostel after Class VIII. Next year after graduating from school, she'll be on her own again. She'll be sent off to her husband, well into his 50s. Guddi's adamant she won't return.
It's not difficult to see why. Guddi doesn't remember her marriage, knows her parents didn't get her wedded and is hoping for some small miracle that will ensure she doesn't have to return to that life. "Meri sister hamare sath rehti hai. Uske bachhe hain. Unke liye kuch karna hai," she says. Her voice is steady, her eyes searching. She too wants to be a policewoman. She knows her marriage is illegal but how many people will she fight if she has to return?
Each girl has her own unique story. Each is tunnelling her way out of ages-old practice that corners them into becoming puppets. But they are all convinced on just one point. "Jo hona tha ho gaya. We're not thinking of our lives. But we'll ensure we don't marry our daughters when they're babies," says Shobha. In her smiling determination, one can hear the rumble of change.