Download Indian law strictly prohibits underage marriage, but in 2009 UNICEF reported that half of the world’s child marriages occurred in the country.
The prevalence of the centuries old tradition sees at least 200,000 children married off each year.
Many parents marry off their daughters to escape poverty and the young girls don’t have a say.
The state of West Bengal has one of the highest rates of underage marriages in the country, but it is also home to several girls that have decided to say ‘no,’ rather than ‘I do.’
Shaikh Azizur Rahman meets the rebellious teens in West Bengal making a difference.
“My parents were all set to marry me off last year. I was fourteen years old and a ninth grade student. I believed I was too little to get married. I wanted to continue my studies further. So, I said to my parents I would not marry so early.”
Now 15-year-old Bithika Das is an icon for girls in West Bengal who don’t want to get married underage.
Her parents were furious because marrying is seen as an opportunity to escape poverty.
“Finally I gathered the courage and called up the child helpline. The helpline officials came down to our house, spoke to my parents and stalled my marriage. Now I would like to pursue higher education and want to be self-dependent.”
The Child In Need Institute is one of the NGOs that provide a child helpline service in West Bengal.
They helped Bithika to stop her marriage.
Debika Ghoshal is a counselor with the NGO.
“When we go to stall a child marriage usually the parents say that for a younger daughter they would pay less in dowry and they would have to pay more if the daughter becomes older. Men prefer younger brides, they say.”
In these cases she explains the advantages of delaying the marriage to the parents.
“We tell the parents, if they want to marry off their daughter at a younger age, they have to pay a dowry. But if the daughter gets educated, in th future an educated man will come to marry her. Then, most likely he will not demand a dowry. There is a higher chance of a girl child being tortured at her husband’s house because she cannot fight against such abuses. But if she is older and educated, she can stand against such torture fearlessly.”
In the past few years, West Bengal has witnessed at least 50 village girls, under 18, successfully stop their underage marriages, with assistance from the child helpline services.
That includes 15-year old Adori Pradhan.
“In villages people believe marriage is the ultimate goal in a woman’s life. Women are meant for producing children, looking after the family and work, like a bonded laborer in the households. I want to change this idea completely.”
She’s now 18 and ready to embrace a brighter future.
“I want to show that a girl is meant not just for household jobs. She can study much and make it big in life if she has such ambition. I want to prove that women are not weak or worthless. I want to show this world that women too can equal the power of men in all walks of life.”
Last month, Adori, Bithika, and three other girls from the Murshidabad district in West Bengal, were invited to visit India’s President Prathibha Patil at her residence.
The President called them “messengers of change”.
“You are our ray of hope, you are the torchbearers of the country’s future. When our girls show wisdom and courage this way, we can foresee that big social changes are coming soon. Our country will prosper when every girl and boy child of our country will go forward, study and become socially aware."
Adori’s mother Pushpa Pradhan is now very proud of her daughter.
“The President of the country felicitated her. People from all around come to see my daughter now and they say that my daughter is great. She is studying well. So people are speaking good about her now. She will be more famous when she gets good job in future. I feel happy and proud for her. I shall never ask her to get married. Now she will take the decision when she will marry.”
Adori is now studying at university.
“I shall marry only after I have turned a complete woman. As I am studying well, I shall surely land a good job. Then I shall get a much better husband because of my higher social position. If I am in a well-earning job, my new family will feel nice and it will be a key to my happiness.”
In 2007, the Indian government enacted an even stricter law against child marriages.
But two years later a government survey found that almost 50 percent of brides in the state in recent years were minors.
The government has since worked hand in hand with dozens of NGOs across the country to provide child helplines to support young girls standing up for their rights.
Anindya Chaudhury heads the social welfare department in Murshidabad.
“Initially we were not getting very good responses from the people. But after we started action with the different stakeholders and NGOs, gradually we are getting good response from people. Now we are getting phone calls from the girls who become victims of early marriages, from different remote corners of the villages. We are thinking that gradually we are approaching the point of a grand success of this prevention programme.”
Young girls seeking help can call one of the child helplines where a member of an NGO will talk to the parents about the importance of education for their girls.
Debika Ghoshal from Child In Need Institute believes that the service plays an important role in preventing child marriages.
“When we explain such points to the parents, in most cases, they become convinced and can foresee what hazards a girl child could face after marriage. They can understand that a good education is very important for the girls to empower them before they are married off. And in most cases they finally decide to drop their plan to marry off their children early.”
Bithika is sitting at the door of her one-room tile-roofed house.
She’s preparing for her 10th grade final exam.
She wants to become a teacher and in the future work as an anti child-marriage activist.
“I want to pursue higher studies and I want to be a good school teacher. I want to help those girls who are lagging behind and lying in darkness. I want to stand by them. I want to teach them that education is the most valuable asset they can earn to empower themselves.”
Coming from a poor family, Bithika’s mother Rinki Das now believes that stopping her daughter’s early marriage was the best decision.
“Since we are poor, I thought that marrying her off then would have been better. But now as she is studying again and dreaming to make it big in life I feel nice. I have now begun dreaming to see her as a very successful woman in life. I feel proud of her. I want her to study more and more. [sobbing] I have lots of new dreams with her now. I want her to study and go a long way. I feel very nice that my daughter is dreaming to achieve lots of goals in her life [sobbing]."