The woman risking it all to help child brides annul their marriages

The content originally appeared on: CNN
As of 2017, 223 million girls and women who were married off before their 18th birthday lived in India, according to the United Nations agency, UNICEF. Only a fraction of the children entered into child marriages are boys. Between April 2019 and March 2020, Childline India received nearly nine times more complaints about the child marriage of girls than of boys.
Not only did the CMRA not eradicate child marriage, the law also failed to provide a way out for those children who had already been forced into marriage.
So in 2007 the CMRA was repealed and replaced by the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA), which recognized that child marriages were valid but voidable. Thanks to the PCMA, a victim of child marriage has up to two years after reaching adulthood to annul their union should they wish to — or know to.
It is difficult to say how many young women have benefited from the annulment provision of the Act. There is not publicly available information and the Ministry of Women and Child Development has not responded to CNN’s multiple requests for the number of child marriage annulments.
What is known is that at least 43 child marriages have been annulled. And what all of those stories have in common is tenacious child rights advocate named Kriti Bharti.

Married off at one

Bharti helped secure India’s very first child marriage annulment and told CNN she has assisted in 42 other cases since discovering the annulment provision in the PCMA.
In March 2012 she met 18-year-old Laxmi Sargara. Bharti, whose surname means “India’s daughter” in Hindi, was 24 at the time and had just formally registered her organization, Saarthi Trust. Both women lived, and continue to live, in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan, famous for its regal history and architecture, and in 2017 was home to 15 million women and girls who were married as children.
Sargara had been one of them. She’d been married off at the age of one to a 3-year-old boy in a different village, but only learned of the union many years later when her in-laws came to tell her that in a few days’ time she’d be moving in with them.
In Rajasthan, it is not uncommon for children as young as one to be married in traditional ceremonies such as the mausar — where a wedding takes place on the 12th day of mourning after the death of a family member. The child continues to live with their parents until their gauna — the ritual where they are then sent to their in-laws’ home after puberty.
Frightened, Sargara told her parents she was going to visit her older brother in the city of Jodhpur, an hour away from their village. With his help, they reached out to Bharti, who was a social worker then with a reputation for helping child marriage victims delay their gauna.
“When Laxmi approached me, she wanted something permanent, and she didn’t want a divorce for a marriage that she never consented to,” Bharti recalls. “After poring over hundreds of judgments and legal documents, we finally realized that there is a provision of annulment that she could use.”
“We were using a law that no one had used before, that courts themselves did not know about,” Bharti continues. “Today when we file a case it’s much easier but back then we were setting the precedent.”

Confronting tradition

Three years after that historic first annulment, Bharti met Santa Devi.
Devi grew up in Rohicha Kallan, a village two hours from Jodhpur. People here are farmers or make handicrafts and furniture.
After her uncle died, Devi was married in a mausar ceremony at just 11 months to a boy who was 10 at the time. Like Sargara, she would continue to be raised by her parents.
In 2010 at 15, Devi learned she was married to the 25-year-old man who she said had been following her everywhere she went and showing up outside her school for weeks. It was only when she told her father about him that she learned of her fate. “This is what our elders have always done,” Devi recalls him saying.
Devastated, Devi was desperate for a way out. Her search would lead her to Bharti who she calls “didi” — older sister.
“Back then I couldn’t speak up, I didn’t even know Hindi, I had never even left my village. But when the groom’s family pressured me to perform gauna, I knew I had to do something. We [Devi and a friend] looked everywhere for a solution and ultimately came across news articles of Kriti didi who nullifies child marriages,” Devi explains.
After speaking with Devi’s friend, Bharti agreed to help. They had to move quickly: Devi traveled to Jodhpur to meet Bharti and fill in the paperwork just six days before her 20th birthday, the cut-off age for annulment applications for Indian women.
Legally seeking to annul the marriage was one thing. Going up against rural institutions of power was quite another.
When Devi told her father about her wish to have her marriage annulled, he met with Bharti and after being counselled by her, agreed to support his daughter. But when the village heard about what Devi had done, a meeting of the jati panchayat or caste council (made up of “leading men of a group [who meet] to deal with the problems that affect the group“) was called and a fine of 16 lakh Rupees (about US$ 21,521) was imposed on Devi’s father for breaking up a marriage.
Once the jati panchayat was involved, and facing a fine and the prospect of expulsion from their village, Devi’s father withdrew his support. Devi says he gave her an ultimatum: “Rip the [annulment] papers, otherwise you are not my daughter”.
“My case was probably the worst one that didi has had to deal with…the jati panchayats gave us a lot of trouble. They threatened to kill me. If didi had not kept me with her they definitely would have killed me,” Devi says.
Caste panchayats, such as the one that fined Devi’s father, act as parallel systems of law enforcement, imposing penalties ranging from fines to excommunication and even so-called honor killings, a euphemism for the brutal murders of women and girls, in contravention of the country’s current laws.
“Courts were established later, but jati panchayats have long existed so they take decisions as per tradition,” says Bharti, explaining how these institutions preserve harmful cultural practices such as child marriage.
“The law has not been an answer to the problem of child marriage,” says Bharti Ali, founder of HAQ Centre for Child Rights. “[Child marriage] continues despite the law being there for a long time now”.
A 2021 study (available only in Hindi) conducted by HAQ found that of 20 cases where child marriages were broken off, in seven instances the decision was made by jati panchayats. India’s traditional divorce law was applied in three cases, but on only one occasion was the child marriage annulled. In all the other cases, agreements were reached between the families involved.
Bharti explains that people turn to jati panchayats not knowing the difference between an annulment and a divorce and expecting divorces to be expensive, laborious processes. The caste council is also known on occasion to allow for child marriages to end but families never anticipate having to pay the fine known as the jhagda — a Hindi word which literally translates as “fight”.
“The study clearly points out that decisions are taken by the panchayats. If we want these provisions of law [such as the PCMA] to be used we will have to figure out what are the local mechanisms and how can we link them to the courts,” says Ali.
But Bharti is less willing to work with these traditional institutions of power, arguing that women, perceived as having a lesser status in a patriarchal system and are therefore not allowed to attend the council meetings, do not get a fair hearing.
While she acknowledges that the legal framework isn’t perfect, with the justice system often failing to treat child marriage victims as victims, she argues that the courts are still fairer. “When you look at [formal] courts, although I agree that there is a lack of sensitivity, at least they hear both parties. Jati panchayats listen to the one who holds greater weight in society and they promote child marriage so we don’t want to create a bridge with them,” she says.
What gives the panchayat power to make rulings as it does on child marriage is the fact that the customary practice remains “largely acceptable” as Ali puts it, in vast swathes of urban and rural India. “Everyone belongs to a certain community. They carry a social identity with them so they first look at the interests of the community and then any other cause,” she adds.
Even Lakshman Jandu, a father who turned to Bharti for help with an annulment only after the jati panchayat asked him to pay a 15 lakh rupees (about $ 20,124) fine, admits that if his daughter’s suitor had turned out to be “a decent boy” he would not have opposed the union.
“We didn’t intend to get her married then but there was a lot of pressure from the community because the other family had another son that they wanted to marry off, so we said we’d get her married so long as their son completes his education,” Jandu explains.
“But he got into a lot of bad habits, theft, breaking into people’s houses, drinking…he was completely out of his parents’ control,” says the 54-year-old father who earns a living as a chauffeur. “I don’t see child marriage as bad but when the situation ends up like this then it is bad.”
Jandu’s experience confirms what Bharti has seen: that despite policymakers seeing the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act as “the exit policy” for all victims of a child marriage, their families — whose support is often essential — only use it if there is some other problem in the marriage, and not because a girl was married off as a child.
“In the beginning the parents are usually against it, they worry about what the jati panchayats and the community will say. So the first thing we do is counsel the parents,” says Bharti.

‘I want girls to speak up for themselves’

Child marriage rates have been declining In India. In 1970, 74% of girls were married off before their 18th birthday and 42% before they turned 15. In 2015, those percentages had fallen to 27% and 7% respectively. The trend has been attributed to access to education, and “public messaging around the illegality of child marriage”.
Despite the decline there are still a lot of girls Bharti describes as forgotten.
It is also true that in India marriage offers women security and status, so Bharti knows that the young women she works with are going to need equipping to navigate life on their own, or until they chose to remarry on their own terms.
“I tell all the girls that I will only take their case if they promise to continue their education,” she says. “I want them to get to a place where they are able to speak up for themselves and protest if they are ever pressured to get married again against their will.”
Devi, whose marriage was annulled in 2015, had to live with Bharti during the process of annulment and later at the shelter that Bharti runs. She says continuing with her education — and Bharti’s reputation — gave her the confidence to eventually start going back to her village home.
“I wanted to study and work like all girls dream of growing up and working, and I got to do exactly that,” says Devi, who now works at an insurance company. “Now I go home often, because I’ve made something of myself. Initially, people were scared if they heard about me visiting; they thought I would call didi. Young girls often come to me if they think a child marriage is going to take place and I give them didi’s number.”
Helping young women imagine a life for themselves after child marriage and then supporting them as they build that life has been rewarding for Bharti but it has also been risky.
“I may not get breakfast, lunch or dinner on some days, but I definitely receive threats on a daily basis,” says Bharti, who lives with her mother. “I have also had instances of receiving fake tips about a child marriage taking place in attempts to lure me to a certain location. Call it a gut feeling or intuition, luckily I’ve avoided the worst,” she adds.
When asked if she has been to the police to report any of the threats she receives, Bharti says doing so would only make it harder for her to interact with the people she is trying to help because it would alienate her from them.
She knows the risks she is taking to help girls use a little-known law to fight a long-held tradition, yet she does it anyway.
“[The law had previously forgotten] about girls once they are married off, but they are the ones who need our help the most… No one is immortal, so if I can help even 10 girls along the way, I’m happy to take the risk.”