October 27th, 2015
Image Source: tribune
Santadevi Meghwal from Rohichyakalan village, about 70 km from Jodhpur, was just 11 months old and in her crib when her grandparents got her married to nine-year-old Sanvalram from a nearby village in 1996. She had no inkling about the wedding till she was 16 years of age and studying in class 11th at Government Senior Secondary School in Dhundhara. It was then that her friends who were engaging in banter about boys and marriage told her that she need not worry about her marriage as she was already married.
The poor girl was shocked out of her wits and confronted her parents about it. She wanted to study and not become a housewife. “I was very upset. I fought with my parents, but they said they could not do anything since the decision was taken by my grandparents,” she says.
In class 12th she had her first encounter with Sanvalram at a wedding and asserted in clear words that she did not consider herself as married and would not honour the childhood wedding. At that time he was 28-years-old and a daily labourer who used to get drunk and stalk her to the school. He would even boast that she was his wife and call her names – “Where will you go? You will have to come to your husband.” She was protected by her friends who almost beat him up on one occasion.
However, this bolstered her determination to seek help for annulling her marriage. Since nobody in her village was forthcoming to help her, she approached Kriti Bharti, a child rights activist with the Saarthi Trust NGO, for help this April. Meanwhile, the village Panchayat threatened her family with ostracism and imposed a fine of Rs 16 lakhs so as to deter her from going further with the annulment procedure. Somehow Kirti counseled the Panchayat members and some of them agreed that the marriage should be annulled. Sanvalram was informed that in case Santa went for divorce, he would have to provide for her for the rest of his life. This finally succeeded in making him step back.
Santa was told that the annulment could take more than a year to finally get through, but she was not intimidated. With the help of the NGO, she registered her case in a Jodhpur family court. To her utter relief, last week she was granted the annulment. The case did not drag on for years as anticipated. The fact that the annulment was sought mutually worked in her favour.
It is also another feather in the cap of Kriti Bharti who has been crusading against child marriage which is a major scourge in India. India ranks 14 in the list of countries with maximum incidence of child marriages, with 47% of women married below the age of 18. Due to its sheer population, it adds up to a third of the world’s child brides. Though there has been a decline in the incidence of child marriages nationally (54% n 1992-93 to 33% now), it advances at a slow pace. Further, child marriage is most prevalent in the lower income strata. It is also widespread in rural areas as compared to urban areas. In India, 48% girls in rural areas are married as children as compared to 29% in the urban areas.
The annulment of Santa’s marriage was the 29th case that this NGO succeeded in winning. The charity was responsible for helping the first girl in India – Laxmi Sargara – to annul her child marriage in 2012. Bharti is a trained child psychologist. “It’s my dream to eradicate child marriage from India forever, and this is just another girl’s life I have helped to save”, she admits.
At present Santa is in her BA final year and dreams of becoming a teacher. She wants to marry again but only after completing her education. However, she finds it difficult to go back to her village because community members speak ill of her and her parents for taking a stand against this age-old tradition. Rohichyakalan sarpanch Dayaram Patel still believes Santa is wrong. “Child marriage is unfortunate, but then different communities have different rituals and practices. Once it happened, she could have stayed in it. What good there is in breaking away?”
We applaud Santa for her grit and determination who was not afraid to put her foot down when even her parents resisted to help her. We also congratulate Saarthi NGO and Kriti Bharti for enabling Santa and women like her in their battle against the evil practice of child marriage. In case any of our readers would like to have more information about this NGO and help the cause, they can visit the website through the link given below: