Though child marriage has been officially prohibited in India since 2006, the practice is still all-too-prevalent -- an estimated 43 percent of women there are married before they turn 18, and that number tends to be higher in poor, rural parts of the country.
There are some signs of progress on the issue, as brave young women like Santadevi Meghwal, with support from civil rights activist Kriti Bharti, are attracting international attention in their efforts to fight back against the practice.
Still, there is frustration among some activists that the legal process to revoke these marriages is too slow -- in the case of Meghwal’s marriage, which she was unknowingly entered into when she was just 11 months old, they began the effort to nullify the marriage in May and expect the matter could take a year or more to be resolved.
That is unacceptable, Jason Jeremias, co-artistic director of Price of Silence, a New York-based performing arts collective for women’s rights, told The Huffington Post. Jeremias’ group has brought together an international coalition of activists who are demanding that India’s laws change so that “child marriages are ‘void’ instead of ‘voidable.’”
“If we’re talking about a childhood marriage, we’re talking about an illegal marriage, so the process should be almost automatic,” Jeremias told HuffPost. “There should be an automatic, streamlined process for annulling these that allows easy access for those who are most vulnerable. If that’s not happening, the process is broken and needs to be fixed.”
The coalition -- which also includes Mumbai-based FemPositive, Feminism in India and 16 December Kranti Official, a Delhi anti-rape group -- launched a campaign gathered around the #FreeSantadevi hashtag in May.
The campaign centers on a Change.org petition and a social media drive where supporters are encouraged to share photos of themselves holding signs sporting the #FreeSantadevi message. Their goal, in addition to ending child marriage in India, is to attain a swift annulment for Meghwal in addition to reversing a $25,000 fine her village’s council charged her family as punishment for refusing the arranged marriage to her would-be husband.
Photo messages, which included contributions from as far away as Tunisia, Hong Kong, Panama and Honduras, and a letter co-written by leaders from all four organizations were delivered to Indian government officials last month.
A copy of the Change.org petition, along with its over 5,800 signatures, were brought to government officials last week. And next, the coalition hopes to recruit supporters to deliver additional photos and letters to Indian embassies throughout the world.
“We want to keep the pressure on so that the Indian central government gets the idea that this is getting pressure from every end until they make a statement to streamline the law,” Jeremias said.
While annulments of child marriages are a faster process than divorces which, the Sydney Morning Herald reported, can be a process that currently takes more than a decade in India, annulments are most often delayed by a husband refusing to show up for a hearing, dragging out the process. Jeremias believes the law should be changed so that a husband’s absence in such a setting should be grounds for the annulment’s approval.
According to the international coalition Girls Not Brides, an estimated 15 million girls are married before the age of 18 each year worldwide, though rates of child marriage are on a slow decline. These girls are at increased risk of pregnancy and childbirth complications, as well as HIV/AIDS infection and domestic and sexual violence.
The three countries with the highest child marriage rates, according to UNICEF, are Niger, Bangladesh and Chad. In order to combat the practice, activists in India and Ethiopia have created educational and economic incentives with some success.
Below, more contributions to the #FreeSantadevi campaign: