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Posted at: Sep 10, 2017, 12:47 AM; last updated: Sep 10, 2017, 2:18 AM (IST)HERE & NOW

Wed-locked in Rajasthan

Yash Goyal in Jaipur
Rampant child marriages, despite law against them, add to crime figures in the face of determined efforts by individuals and traders to stop the practice

Yash Goyal in Jaipur

KRITI Bharti (29) was only a toddler when her father abandoned her along with her mother. Today, Kriti is known for a landmark case: She got India’s first child marriage annulled in 2012. Lakshmi Sargara was a year-old bride and the groom three. At age 17, Lakshmi approached Kriti’s Saarthi Trust when her parents forced her ‘gauna’ (sending the girl to her in-laws’ home for consummation of marriage). Lakshmi’s freedom was Kriti’s success: her Trust has annulled 32 child marriages in four years and prevented over 900 more.

Rajasthan tops the states in the prevalence of child marriages, says a report of the Annual Health Survey conducted by the Ministry of Health in collaboration with the Registrar General of India and the Ministry of Home Affairs. Rajasthan is among the empowered action group (EAG) states (Uttarakhand, UP, MP, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and Assam are the others where half of the country’s population lives). 

In a unique show of solidarity with efforts to prevent child marriages, 47,000 tent dealers in Rajasthan last year decided to first verify the birth certificates of brides and grooms before supplying tents for marriage ceremonies. “The Rajasthan Tent Dealers Kiraaya Vyavsai Samiti (TDKVS) members took an oath that every marriage organizer, particularly of ‘samuhik vivah’ (mass marriage) event, has to file an affidavit with birth certificates of brides and grooms before hiring any facilities such as lighting, generator sets and orchestra,” says Ravi Jindal, TDKVS president.

“We didn’t mind our losses, especially in rural areas. We are happy that no child marriage took place under our tents in the last one year,” adds Jindal. Despite such efforts, figures released by the State Crime Record Bureau are alarming: in 2014-16, as many as 5,995 cases of ‘sexual assault’ on minor girls were recorded in Rajasthan, of which 4,946 cases are pending in courts.

The state government’s lack of focus is apparent, though the department of child and women development has an annual budget of Rs 1,904.51 crore for a strategy and action plan titled “Sanjha Abhiyan: Bal Vivah Mukt Rajasthan” in partnership with UNFPA and UNICEF. Social activists say this plan works well on Akshay Tritiya/Aakha Teej and Peepal Purnima days — when most of child marriages take place as per tradition — and not before or after the scheduled dates. 

 “About 17 million children in the age group of 10-19 are married, bulk of them (13 millions) are girls (Census 2011),” says Anita Bhadel, the minister in-charge.

It is here that Kriti’s efforts have a hit a wall. “Getting a child marriage cancelled legally is one thing, and preventing such marriages is completely another. “Villagers are smart enough now. They organize such ceremonies after Akshay Tritiya or Peepal Purnima days without any fear of the district administration and police.” 

Kriti says stopping ‘gauna’ is no answer as a girl’s in-laws return after some months. “In one such case, I discovered the annulment in the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, section 3. Before Lakshmi’s case, this legal power was never used; no one knew how to take it forward. So, I did what a person does to light up a dark room: switch on each light. And we made history.” 

Kriti is also a rehabilitation psychologist. “Our Saarthi Trust does not get adequate funds. Whatever I earn from rehabilitation consultancy, I spend on our core activity of stopping child marriages. I enjoy living with these girls whose cases are pending in the family court. I do hold a weekly orientation programme in villages and schools to make students aware for their legal rights.”

Saarthi has two little brides Pinky and Patli. They have horrifying tales of village life. Now 19, Pinky, a child marriage victim living in Saarthi Rehabilitation Home at Jodhpur and facing legal challenges for her marriage annulment, says she was 10 when she was married off to an 18-year-old boy in 2009.

 “I refused to live with him. He was HIV+ve. I moved to Jodhpur, completed my BA, and now I am doing B.Ed. I did receive threat calls; they tried to force me into a vehicle, my mother was given warnings. Today I am confident that I would be a government teacher,” she says. Patli, now 18, is from Agoloi village, near Jodhpur. She says she was married on Mausar or Mrityubhoj day of her grandfather, and that she would like to “relive” her life.

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