Indian girls fight back against child marriage

Wed Nov 18, 2009 10:43pm EST
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By Sujoy Dhar

KOLKATA, India (Reuters Life!) - Fourteen-year-old Ahalya Kumar lives on a single daily meal of starched rice and has never been to the movies, but the girl from a dirt-poor Indian village packed enough power to reject her arranged marriage in June.

One of four children in a family that earns a pittance rolling bidis, or cheap handrolled Indian cigarettes, her elder sister was married off young and forced to bear children before she turned 18, the legal Indian marrying age.

But when it was Ahalya's turn, she said "no" after hearing about a 13-year-old girl from the same area who had shot to national fame by stopping her marriage.

"I want to be educated first and live healthy. Marriage can wait until I am 19," she said.

In Oldih village of Purulia, one of the poorest areas in the eastern state of West Bengal, about 300 km (190 miles) from the bright lights of the state capital Kolkata, Ahalya had to fight poverty and parental pressure to stand up for herself.

But times are slowly changing. The government supported by aid agencies is setting up schools for child laborers to make them aware of their rights to break a rife but outlawed custom.

"Girls are gradually saying 'no' to child marriage," said Anil Gulati, a spokesman for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), which works with authorities to fight child marriage.

Gulati said girls have become bolder by encouraging each other and getting media publicity for their refusal.   Continued...