India schoolgirl defies tradition to reject child marriage

Thu Aug 4, 2011 9:08am EDT
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By Nita Bhalla

BHILWARA, India (TrustLaw) - Her fate looked sealed when her family began organizing the nuptial celebrations. But the bride-to-be, a shy schoolgirl from a remote village in western India, wasn't ready to say "I do."

In a region where patriarchy and age-old customs dictate a woman's life from birth to death, 15-year-old Sapna Meena in April joined a small but growing number of girls who are standing up against the widespread practice of child marriage in India.

"My family was in the midst of planning my wedding," recalled Sapna, her black hair pinned in a bun and a gold stud in her nose, as she sat on a step outside her home in Badakakahera village in Rajasthan state.

"My grandfather had decided that while he was alive he wanted to see that I get married and settled. I was scared to say anything against it at first.

"I went to my mother and told her I wanted to study more and get a job, and only after that would I get married," added the girl, who is from a subsistence farming community that ekes out a living by growing crops like wheat and maize.

But Sapna didn't stop there. She went to local officials in the city of Bhilwara -- some three hours by bus -- to seek advice and press home the point to her family that the legal age for marriage in India is 18.

The authorities played a mediating role and her family suspended the wedding plans. What's more, Sapna was awarded a certificate of gallantry by the government for being an "agent of change" in her community.

Gender rights activists say Sapna is proof that, through education and exposure to the modern world, girls are beginning to take decisions over their own lives and are helping to lift the curse of early marriage that has plagued India for centuries.   Continued...

<p>Sapna Meena, 15, stands in front of her house in the remote Indian village of Badakakhera in Bhilwara District in the western state of Rajasthan, in this June 22, 2011 file photo. In April, her family wanted her to become a child bride -- an illegal yet common practice in this part of India. With the support of the local authorities, she convinced her family to stop the wedding plans and became a role model for other girls in the village who also resisted child marriage. India is considered a child marriage 'hotspot', with 45 percent of women married before the legal age of 18, according to the International Centre for Research on Women. REUTERS/TRUSTLAW/Nita Bhalla/Files</p>