Santadevi Meghwal who learnt about her ‘marriage’ when she was 16, decided to fight for her rights and break free. Image Credit: Nilima Pathak/Gulf News

New Delhi: Santadevi Meghwal, a brave teenager in Rajasthan, has moved court for legal termination of her childhood marriage. Her parents conducted her marriage when she was barely 11-months-old.

“It is part of a tradition in our village that when an elderly relative dies, a child in the family has to get married within 13 days,” Santadevi informed.

Though the marriage function is a small affair and the child bride and groom are only made to sit next to each other, the understanding is that a formal wedding would take place once the girl becomes an adolescent.

The practice of child marriage is widespread in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar and Chhattisgarh.

These states have an average age of marriage below the legal limit of 18 for girls and 21 for boys. According to the 2001 census, about 1.5 million girls were married when they were under 15.

While child marriage is banned in India, it is not ‘void’ and has to be annulled, should either partner wish to do so.

In Santadevi’s case, on turning 16, she learnt about her marriage and protested vehemently. But when her so-called husband and in-laws refused to give in, she decided to fight for her rights and break free.

Here she speaks to Gulf News.

Gulf News: While child marriage is illegal, the tradition continues. What were your reasons for opposing it?

Santadevi Meghwal: I was sceptical about it because my elder sister, who also had a child marriage, suffered a lot. Her in-laws ill-treated and threw her out of the house within four years of marriage. I did not want to suffer the same fate. Moreover, when I turned 16 and my so-called husband Sanwalram and his parents turned up at our house in Rohicha Kallan village in Jodhpur district and I refused to go with them, Sanwalram showed his true colours. He began stalking me when I would go to college. He even threatened to take me away forcibly. The villagers would see him harassing me, but never intervened. Such experiences helped me in my decision to oppose such a marriage.

Did you discuss everything with your parents?

Yes I did, but initially they did not support my decision of not marrying Sanwalram and I used to feel very scared. They were angry because according to them refusal by a girl was unheard of and she was never expected to disobey.

So, how did you convince them?

I was adamant not to accept Sanwalram as my husband. But it was only after I told them how he was harassing me in full public view that they realised the kind of a person he was and understood my point of view.

What was the reaction of the villagers?

No one stood by us. To make matters worse, the village caste panchayat slapped a penalty of Rs1.6 million (Dh92,617) on my parents ordering them to either send me to my so-called in-laws’ home or pay the penalty. The community elders boycotted our family and we were forced to leave the village and came to live in Jodhpur.

In what way has life changed for you and your family?

My father, who works in the fields as a daily wage earner, is very supportive now and since I wanted to study further, he is fully backing my decision to educate myself.

How and when did you approach the court to annul your marriage?

I had read about NGO Saarthi Trust and Kriti Bharti, who runs it. One day, I approached her and narrated my story. She first counselled both my parents and then tried to counsel Sanwalram and his parents, but when they refused to budge, she explained to me the anomaly in the law. She advised me to file a petition in court for annulment of the marriage and has been helping me since then.

With what documents did you approach the court?

For an annulment, I had to prove I was underage at the time of marriage. So a birth certificate or a school certificate proves this. The process can work out within three days to six months or even a year, depending on the proceedings. In my case, it might take a longer time because Sanwalram and his parents feel slighted and might continue to bring hurdles. But then I am not bothered. Let them drag the case. I know the law is on my side and I will win the case.

Have any of your friends followed your footsteps?

No, all of them were married early. And even though some of them are unhappy in their marriage, they say there is nothing they can do, as their parents do not support them.

What are your future plans?

I am 20-years-old now and have completed the second year of my graduation. My aim is to become a teacher and guide young children about issues concerning their lives.

Kriti Bharti

Kriti Bharti, 27, is a child rights campaigner who runs the Saarthi Trust in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. She says, “I find it strange that every year the state’s Women & Child Development department wakes up only in the month of April at the time of Akshaya Tritya festival, considered auspicious for marriages. They claim to keep an eye so that no child marriage takes place. But since child marriages take place any time of the year, what’s the logic of them coming into action only for a month.”

Discussing the remedial approach, she claims, “There is no awareness regarding annulment of child marriage, which is a very important aspect to tackle this issue. It is not possible for my NGO to help each and every child in other states. The government should join hands and do something about it.”

Kriti shot to fame in 2012 when 16-year-old Laxmi, who was married off when she was a toddler, approached her. “Laxmi did not want to go to her husband’s house and came to me for help,” she informs.

A child psychologist, Kriti approached the court on Laxmi’s behalf. She says, “Though I knew the law on child marriage had a provision for annulment, it was never tested in court. The judges and lawyers I spoke to had no idea about such a case. Nevertheless, I went ahead and the marriage was declared void. Victory for Laxmi set a legal precedent and gave hope to other girls.”

Since Laxmi’s husband had consented to terminate the marriage, it was easily dealt with in court. The case not only made it to school textbooks, but also secured a place for Kriti in the Limca Book of Records.

Ever since, Kriti has won 28 more annulments in the family courts and won several national and international awards for her work. She comes to the rescue of child brides married as infants, who wish to annul the marriage they never consented to. Child marriage can result in girls dropping out of school and becoming mothers at an age when they are themselves a child.