New Delhi: When Vijayalaxmi Sharma was 13 and heard that her best friend Meena was getting married, she wasn’t shocked. Every girl in Sawan village in Rajasthan where she lived got married at puberty.
Vijaylaxmi attended the wedding and enjoyed dressing up for it. The shock came later when Meena became pregnant, developed complications, and died in childbirth, aged 14.
Her death set Sharma thinking and wondering if that might be her destiny too.
“All the girls in my extended family and all the girls in every village around here got married early,” Sharma told Fairfax Media this week. People here venerate parents who get their daughters married early because they have discharged their responsibility and have no tension.”
She wanted to avoid the same fate and wanted to continue studying. Her instincts were reinforced when some voluntary workers came to her school and explained the devastating consequences that child marriage can have for young girls: early motherhood can harm their physical growth, their mental and emotional development, and their health. Child marriage denies a girl her right to health, education and choice.
In some Indian states, including Rajasthan, almost six in 10 girls marry as children. Nationally, about half of Indian women are married before they turn 18 – the minimum legal age of marriage for boys and girls.
Poverty and ignorance are two reasons for child marriage. Another is a patriarchal culture that dictates that brides must be virgins. To ensure this, parents have to prevent daughters from dating and losing their virginity, bringing dishonour to the family, and the best way to do this is marry them off while they are still very young.
Sharma managed to avoid a child marriage and has campaigned to persuade parents in her own village and the surrounding ones not to marry their girls early.
This sole crusader, now 21, has been active in 13 villages, working with a small group of friends to spread awareness by going door to door, putting on street plays, and using puppet shows to project the message. She has managed to prevent around 50 child marriages.
But her first battle was with her own parents when she turned 14 and discovered that they were looking for a husband for her. The next few months were an ordeal. When she said she wanted to defer marriage until she had studied, her parents were dumbfounded. Girls in Rajasthan are not meant to voice their opinions. They are meant to obey.
If the girl is disobedient, the parents are mocked by neighbours. For her impudence, Sharma was locked up in a room without food or water. Her two younger brothers, who are fond of her, used to secretly share their food with her.
“My father said he was ashamed of me. He said I was the only girl in the village still unmarried. And it was true. I was the only one my age who wasn’t married,” she said.
The struggle lasted until her parents finally accepted that she was adamant. Moreover, she told them that she would finance her education herself without taking a penny from them. Sharma continued going to school and paid her fees by sewing clothes and giving tuition to other children.
In the initial stages of her campaign to persuade villagers of the ills of child marriage, she hit a wall. Because of her age, they didn’t take her seriously.
“If I don’t marry my daughter, are you prepared to take her on and look after her,” some asked. Others laughed when she told them her age and pushed her out of the house.
It was only when two things happened that the tide began slowly to turn. First, some members of a voluntary group from a nearby town began to lend her support. The fact that they were adults made villagers take Sharma more seriously.
Second, they saw her practical commitment to her cause: “I used to donate my clothes to girls whose parents were really poor. I used to ask the teacher to waive their fees so that girls could continue studying. When people began seeing that I wasn’t just saying ‘don’t marry your girls’ but also helping them practically, then attitudes began changing.”
Eventually her parents also threw their weight behind her. And then finally, the head of the village council – the sarpanch or headman – also lent his authority to her campaign. By now, in any case, villagers were a little nervous about her. This teenager with a low, gravelly, masculine voice, was capable of reporting a child marriage to the police the moment she got wind of the preparations.
“People became nervous about getting into trouble with the police,” she said. “That was another useful factor because under the law, no one can get married before the age of 18.”
Apart from the efforts of non-government organisations and individuals like Sharma, education and awareness have gradually been eroding child marriage. Many districts of Rajasthan, for example, have reported a decline in recent years.
Sharma, who went on to get a degree from Rajasthan University, is happy that she made her contribution. “Every time I felt disheartened, I used to picture Mamta in her wedding finery and her dead body a few months later.”
Will she ever get married? “Oh yes. If my parents supported me on this, that is the least I owe them now that I have finished my education,” she said. “I have promised them I will marry the man they choose for me.”