Kriti Bharti, founder of the anti-child marriage advocacy group Saarthi Trust, addresses a meeting in Mathania, India. Image Credit: Los Angeles Times

JODHPUR, Rajasthan: The abuse began days after she moved in with her husband. He would come home drunk and force her to have sex. The women in his family hurled insults at her and said she brought bad luck.

Pinki Kumari was only 16, but her fate had been decided much earlier, at age four, when her parents had a wedding ceremony for her and a boy 10 years older, and said they would live together when she grew up. When she was sent to his house more than a year ago, the shy teenager who rarely raised her voice above a whisper soon began pleading with her father to let her come home. He refused, afraid to anger her in-laws or challenge the village orthodoxy in India’s Rajasthan state, which has long had one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage.

Then she made a phone call.

The voice that answered was warm and knowing, like that of an older sister, but girded with a steely confidence. Kriti Bharti had fielded hundreds of such calls and knew what to ask: Could she prove her age? Could she prove the wedding took place?

Don’t worry, Bharti said finally. We can get you out of this.

One of India’s most successful campaigners against child marriage, Bharti runs a one-woman hotline for underage brides and grooms in northwestern India, her name and number printed in newspaper articles touting her unique approach: Instead of merely preaching against the illegal marriages, she fights them in court.

In 2012, Bharti helped obtain the first annulment of a child marriage in India, in the case of a Rajasthani couple who were forced to wed when he was three and she was one.

Bharti has had a total of 36 underage unions cancelled and filed cases on behalf of eight more child brides and grooms — including Kumari, now 18 and separated from her husband.

“Child marriage is like a disease: It’s important to prevent it, but when so many are infected, you have to find a way to cure them,” Bharti, 30, said in her office, a second-story apartment in the city of Jodhpur plastered with newspaper clippings and photos of her clients.

India is home to one-third of the roughly 700 million women worldwide who became wives before turning 18, according to Unicef data. A 2015-2016 national health survey found that more than one-quarter of Indian women ages 20-24 had been married before their 18th birthday.

Growing awareness

Despite laws aimed at curbing child marriage — and growing awareness that it contributes to sexual abuse, unsafe pregnancies, lower education rates and greater poverty — ancient views of girls as chattel persist among hidebound Hindus.

In Rajasthan, a vast and socially conservative desert state, the national survey said that 35.4 per cent of women had been forced into wedlock as girls. Bharti’s phone jingles several times daily with a report of an underage marriage or an inquiry about an annulment.

Under Indian law, married children can request an annulment up to two years after adulthood, which it defines as 18 for girls and 21 for boys. The provision is part of a 2006 act that imposes jail time and a fine of up to $1,500 (Dh5,505) for anyone caught participating in a child marriage — but does not automatically render those marriages invalid.

Advocacy groups criticise the law for putting the onus on victims to initiate legal proceedings that often require a parent or guardian’s participation — not easy when marriages are the result of community pressure — and court fees and travel costs that can reach into the hundreds of dollars, far exceeding poor families’ incomes.

While the Indian government considers amending the law, Bharti and the small nonprofit she founded in 2011, Saarthi Trust, fight to educate children about their rights. Her clients’ struggles, she said, resonate with her own difficult upbringing.

Her father left before she was born, leaving her mother to raise her alone in a family that viewed her as cursed, by turns shunning her and subjecting her to beatings.

Renouncing her family name, Chopra, she took the moniker Bharti, which means “daughter of India.” She taught herself English by reading newspaper columns with a dictionary beside her, making note of every unfamiliar word, and eventually earned a doctorate in psychology from a university in Jodhpur.

A decade ago, when she began counselling child abuse victims, a teenage patient came to her distraught, saying she just learned she’d been married as an infant. Bharti wanted to intervene, but the obvious option, filing for divorce, was unsatisfying. “In India, there is a social stigma attached to divorce — it is pasted on your head for your entire life,” Bharti said. Annulment was written into the law, but no one in India had obtained one for an underage marriage. When she did, in 2012, the case made national headlines.

Bharti began visiting Rajasthani villages, riding in the back of taxis across narrow, sand-blown highways, often accompanied by former child brides, to look for girls who wanted to challenge their unions in court.

One blistering morning in June, Bharti pulled into the dirt parking lot of a school in Mathania, north of Jodhpur. She stepped into a large classroom where about 100 young people sat on the floor.

Bharti asked if anyone had witnessed a child marriage. More than half raised their hands.

Then Pinki Kumari stood up.

After speaking by phone to Bharti several times, Kumari summoned the courage to walk out of her in-laws’ house one afternoon when no one was home. She didn’t return.

This year she moved into a shelter home Saarthi runs in Jodhpur and is studying for a mass communications degree from a local college. Within months, Bharti hoped, her annulment would be granted.

“If you are facing the same problem as me,” Kumari told the crowd, “you can escape too.”