A young Muslim bride during a mass wedding ceremony in Ahmedabad. Marrying girls off at an early age is common practice in rural areas of India. Photograph: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images
Santa Devi Meghwal was married off when she was 11 months old. She knew that, on turning 16, she would move in with her husband and his parents.
The reality hit her when they turned up at her house in Rohicha Kallan village in Rajasthan’s Jodhpur district on a scorching day three years ago to take her away. It was the first time she had set eyes on her husband, Saanval Ram.
“My strongest emotion was the unfairness of it. Why should I go along with something I wasn’t party to, or even aware of? I couldn’t face being treated like a parcel to be picked up by a man I didn’t care for,” she said, speaking on the telephone from Jodhpur.
Under the 2006 Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, it is illegal for girls under 18 and boys under 21 to marry in India. Those convicted of involvement face up to two years in jail and fines of up to 200,000 rupees (about £2,100). However, 2014 figures from Unicef, the UN children’s agency, show that 47% of girls in India were married before they turned 18. The practice is common in rural areas.
“Almost all the people know that there is a law in place against child marriage – however, it still takes place as societal norms and pressure pushes people into breaking these rules,” said Dora Giusti, a child protection specialist with Unicef in New Delhi.
Child marriage can result in girls dropping out of school, early pregnancies, and mothers who are ill-equipped to raise children, activists say.
Parents sometimes marry off their daughters because they fear that later, as teenagers, they might have sexual relations and bring shame upon their families. Another factor is peer pressure: parents worry that unless they act, they won’t be able to find their daughters a husband. Opposition to change is entrenched.
“Villagers don’t like city people coming and telling them their customs are wrong. Changing attitudes is a slow process,” said Kavita Srivastava, a Jaipur-based women’s rights activist.
Meghwal found herself hemmed in by these traditions. During that first visit by Ram and his family she made an excuse not to leave with them. The excuses continued as she turned 18, then 19. Ram’s family grew angry.
Elders in Meghwal’s village imposed a fine of 1.6 million rupees on her parents. With no way to pay such a colossal sum, the family moved to Jodhpur.
Running out of excuses to go to her husband, Meghwal called Kriti Bharti, a child rights campaigner who runs the Saarthi Trust in Jodhpur.
Bharti, 27, made headlines in 2012 for obtaining India’s first annulment of a child marriage. Since then, she has won 27 more annulments in the family courts.
A child psychologist, Bharti says the law on child marriage makes provision for annulments, but previously it had never been tested in court. She describes her first petition as “a stab in the dark”. Laxmi Sargara, who was married off when she was one, was Bharti’s first case. That victory set a legal precedent and gave hope to other girls. The case made it into school textbooks.
When Sargara was 16, and about to move to her husband’s house in Rajasthan, she heard that another girl, who married into the same family, had killed herself after years of abuse. She decided not to go, and contacted Bharti.
India still has one of the lowest divorce rates in the world. Ending a marriage still carries stigma in rural areas, where a woman will find it very hard to remarry. Divorce also takes longer to rule on in India’s overburdened courts and is very expensive.
For an annulment, however, one only has to prove that the bride was underage at the time of marriage. A birth certificate or school certificate can prove this. Bharti said this process can take between three days and six months.
In Sangara’s case, the Jodhpur magistrate was sympathetic, and her husband also consented. The marriage was declared null in April 2012. Two years ago, when she reached 19, Sargara married a man of her own choosing.
“Kriti saved me from misery. Child marriage is a form of abuse and exploitation of helpless children,” said Sargara. Bharti is still in touch with her. “She is the queen of her home. Her husband gives her so much affection and respect that she always looks like a radiant bride,” she said.
With Meghwal’s marriage, however, annulment proceedings may not be so straightforward.
Ram opposes the annulment and has threatened to abduct his unwilling bride, Bharti said. He has also warned Bharti that her “health” is at risk if she persists with the case.
But Meghwal refuses to be cowed. She says she has glimpsed a better future and is now studying to be a teacher. “Kriti has given me a new life. I can’t wait to see what it holds for me,’ she said.
“It will take longer than we would have wanted but it will happen,” said Bharti. “His [Ram’s] so-called honour has been slighted. But all he can do is drag it out. In the end, Santa Devi will win because the law is on her side.”
(Additional reporting by Zeeshan Mukhtar)