WEST BENGAL, INDIA— Child marriage is an ancient practice in India, and despite being illegal, it continues today in mostly rural areas. Nearly half of women in India are married before the age of 18 and many of those become brides much younger.
But one group in eastern India is looking to change this trend.
Bithika Das is concentrating on her school work. The 16-year-old girl from a small village in West Bengal state knows this opportunity to study is one that was nearly lost two years ago when her parents arranged her marriage to a young man.
“If I got married then, my education would have stopped at ninth grade. I could have achieved nothing in the future with an incomplete education. In my husband’s family, I was not going to get good respect,” she said.
Foundation fights back
After her parents' refusal to cancel the marriage arrangement, Bithika contacted the Murshidabad office of the Childline India Foundation. The group runs a 24-hour hotline, providing counseling and other help to children in crisis.
Childline activist Debika Ghoshal led the team that helped stall the marriage of then-14-year-old Bithika. The group works with local police to lodge criminal complaints against parents who do not comply with the law banning child marriage. Activists then focus on ensuring that a young girl is able to continue with her education.
“The girls say they want to study further. They are closer to the media and they know that society - the world - is marching ahead; everyone is advancing," said Ghoshal. "So, they, too, want to move ahead. But mostly because of poverty and partly for some other social reasons the parents want to marry them [their daughters] off in their childhood.”
Money a factor
By marrying off their young daughters, poor families can reduce their financial burden and, in some cases, avoid paying a higher dowry to the child's potential in-laws.
Murshidabad resident Amena Begum had hoped to marry off her 14-year-old daughter, but the marriage was thwarted by activists and her daughter returned to school.
“Where shall I get a suitable groom for her if I don’t marry her off right now, and let her study further, and finally she turns 25?” asked Begum.
The United Nations already has raised awareness of the consequences of child marriage in India, citing the higher drop-out rates of child brides and their greater risk of being physically and sexually abused.
Childbirth versus education
But the effect can be more grave. UNICEF says girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are more likely to experience delivery complications during childbirth and that neonatal, infant and child mortality rates are much higher for young mothers.
For now, young girls like Bithika are being spared this fate as they rise up against a centuries-old practice.
"I know when I marry in the future I will go to a good family, and because of my strength and job I will get respect there. They will not be able to neglect me," said Bithika.
This teenager has finished at the top of her class and has been recognized by the president for her courage. She now has a different vision of her future - one that involves becoming a school teacher.