Jhumki’s (name changed) red and white sakha-pola (wedding bangles) and sindoor jar sharply with her starched uniform. She was forced by her father to marry when she was barely 11 but she feels lucky to be allowed to attend school. Forty-six per cent of women (between the ages of 18 and 29) in India were married before the age of 18, according to the National Family Health Survey-3. It is estimated that there are 23 million child brides in the country, around 40% of child brides globally. Global human rights NGO Breakthrough, working in districts of Hazaribagh and Gaya (in Bihar) and Ranchi in Jharkhand found that over 60% of women between the ages of 20-24 were married before 18.
Breakthrough, which launched its ‘Nation Against Early Marriage’ campaign in Ranchi recently, has so far reached 35,000 women and expects to expand the campaign nationwide and target 100,000 women in the coming months. The NGO — which had spearheaded the successful ‘bell bajao’ campaign against domestic violence — hopes to change the culture that drives and perpetuates early marriage to replace it with one where the lives, rights and personhood of girls is valued. Worldwide, 60 million girls become child brides every year, of which around 30 million belong to South Asia alone.
‘140 million child brides by 2020 likely’
According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), if the trends continue between 2011 and 2020, more than 140 million girls will become child brides, of which at least 18.5 million will be under the age of 15.
Breakthrough vice-president Sonali Khan said, “This issue came up when we were working with communities in Bihar and Jharkhand. Under-age girls are incapable of negotiating domestic violence, are deprived of early health and reproductive rights. This later has implications on child and maternal mortality.”
According to the NGO’s data, the trend is worse in rural areas. In Jharkhand, 71% of girls in rural areas were married before 18 years compared to 33% in urban areas. In Bihar, 65.2% of girls were married before 18 years compared to 37% in urban areas.
Breakthrough is working with communities where the average age of marriage ranges between 15.1 and 16.4 and cohabitation also happens before the girl is 17. “Our on-?eld trainings that began in April 2013 have witnessed an average participation of 200 middle and high school level students per session. We have targeted fathers or male members of the family who usually make the decision for the young girl. But it is a slow process,” Khan said.