How Indian Girls Are Winning Their Way Out of Arranged Marriages
Rights for women in India are notoriously abysmal, and a lot of that starts with how Indian families force their young daughters into marrying strangers. While there is a law in the country forbidding Indian girls from marrying before the age of 18, it’s a fairly nominal rule considering that nearly half of all girls in the country are wed before 18 anyway. Finally, however, some of these girls are starting to escape these marriages and regain their autonomy in Indian courts.
Though urban areas have mainly eradicated underage weddings, the custom still flourishes in rural areas and remote villages. At this point, basically all Indians are well aware that these marriages are illegal, but that hasn’t stopped them from continuing with this practice. Many communities resent that Indian politicians have tried to impede on centuries-old traditions and continue to arrange underage marriages in defiance of the law.
As a result, 47 percent of girls in India are married by the age of 18. Young brides miss out on a lot of opportunities because of these sham weddings. They must quit school and become mothers before they are mature enough to handle this responsibility. Although economic opportunities are not plentiful for women in the country, they are especially stifled for girls trapped in these marriages.
When the law against child marriage was first implemented, it included a clause that unions where one or more of the participants is underage could be annulled. However, given prevailing societal norms against female empowerment and divorce, no one dared to try to contest these marriages. Women who divorce are practically considered lepers, and the court proceedings for divorce are unnecessarily long and expensive, undoubtedly designed to discourage people from pursuing them.
All that changed in 2012 when Kriti Bharti, a psychologist and children’s rights advocate, met Laxmi Sargara, a teenage girl whose parents married her back when she was just one. When she reached 16, the age where she was supposed to move in with her husband, Sargara learned that his family had been so abusive to another bride that she killed herself, obviously worrying her.
On Sargara’s behalf, Bharti appealed the court to end the marriage. Though these annulments were unprecedented, the judge agreed that the law was on the book and granted her an annulment. After this initial success, Bharti went to court advocating for many more child brides and has won 28 annulments. Generally speaking, Bharti finds that comparing dates on birth and marriage certificates is sufficient to show judges that the girls had been married illegally.
It’s not always so easy. Right now, Santadevi Meghawl has been trying to escape a marriage she wants no part in. As an infant, she was married to a 9-year-old boy. Now that Meghawl is a teenager, her husband’s family is demanding 1.6 million rupees ($25,000 USD) to give her an annulment. The husband has also threatened Meghawl’s life if she pursues an annulment in court. Meghawl is standing her ground, though, and vows to escape the marriage so she can study to become a teacher instead.
Continued victories in these court battles will be critical for cutting down on further child abuse. If Indians know that a reluctant bride will be able to later annul the marriage in court, it will begin to discourage them from forcing girls into these situations in the first place.