A 20-year-old woman whose parents entered her into a marriage when she just 11 months old has now rejected that marriage and is fighting to have it annulled.
According to an interview with Gulf News published last month, Santadevi Meghwal discovered at the age of 16 that she had been entered into an arranged marriage when she was not yet a toddler. When her would-be husband and in-laws showed up at her home in the western state of Rajasthan, she refused to leave her house.
Meghwal, a college student studying to become a teacher, was disenchanted at the sight of her “husband,” who she described as crude and aggressive to the Sydney Morning Herald. Further, his family wanted her to abandon her education and become a housewife, which is not the life Meghwal has in mind.
Her “husband” went on to stalk her when she went to college and threaten her, actions that eventually led her parents to support her decision to reject the marriage, even after her village’s council, called a caste panchayat, urged her family to pay a lofty fine of 1.6 million rupees (over $25,000) and banished them from the village in lieu of sending her to live with the man, who is now 28.
Meghwal then turned to Kriti Bharti, a child rights activist with the Saarthi Trust NGO, for help. According to NDTV, they are working to have the marriage annulled by mutual consent and planned to pursue legal action concerning the fine threatened by the village council.
An annulment could take as long as a year or more to process and her “husband’s” family could still present challenges, but Meghwal is undeterred.
“I am not bothered,” Meghwal told Gulf News. “Let them drag the case. I know the law is on my side and I will win the case.”
Bharti, who is trained as a child psychologist, has a growing record of getting child marriages annulled, winning 27 annulments through May, according to the Guardian. The first of them was awarded in 2012.
While child marriage in India is technically illegal, the country is home to more child brides than anywhere else in the world. According to UNICEF’s latest estimates, 43 percent of Indian women aged 20-24 were first married prior to the age of 18.
Rates of child marriage in India are highest in poorer, rural parts of the country such as the state of Rajasthan, where Meghwal lives. And while the practice is generally on decline among brides younger than 15, the marriage rate has actually increased for brides ages 15 to 18, according to the Girls Not Brides organization.
Being married as a minor puts girls at increased risk of HIV and domestic violence, according to the International Center for Research on Women.