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A child bride I once knew.

Young adolescent girls praying in their school at Indore, India

(Originally published for 'the WIP', this article made it as a feature story on International Woman's Day)

I had heard about the prevalence of child marriage in India, but Nikita, 11, personalized the institution for me. I met her in a government school in the remote village of Doodiya, eight kilometers from Indore, Madhya Pradesh. Tiny, fragile-boned, and inhibited, she is a student of class six. In other parts of the world, Nikita would have lived the life of a growing child, but here in the heart of India, Nikita behaves like a small lady. She is soon to be married. A child bride at 11 years, soon to tie the knot with a 15-year-old boy, also in school, but certainly not an adult himself.

This is the tradition in this part of India. Children are married off when they should still be playing with toys. Boys and girls enter matrimony without knowing what marriage means. Their childhood and any life aspirations they might have had are extinguished by this age-old tradition. No one challenges it because it has become the norm.

In the school where Nikita studies, I notice many girls, younger or her age, with vermillion or mustard-colored paste on their foreheads. To my surprise, I also see the mustard-colored paste on the foreheads of a few boys. I later find out that these children are either engaged or already married. According to a teacher here, out of the 200 students in her school, 30 are married, but another source fears that the percentage may be much higher.

When I get the chance to talk to Nikita at her school, I take extra caution not to scare her off by asking too many questions. She is my getaway to another world, another time. She surprises me with her composure and maturity beyond her years, and I feel that she had been compromised by what lay ahead of her. She shows no resistance, no second thoughts, and no trace of regret. Regardless, the expectations placed upon her are too much.

I try not to sound too eager when I ask, “So are you happy to be getting married or you don’t want to?” I was hoping the answer would be the latter. She smiles and replies, “I didn’t think about that. I only know everyone gets married in my village when they are much younger. My uncle’s daughter got married when she turned five. In fact, I am late.”

Now this is something.

Nikita tells me she saw the boy she would soon marry once at a family get-together, as is the tradition. The families of the prospective couple meet informally over tea to mull over the possibility of marriage. A decision is made after the boy sees the girl and agrees that she is “fit” to be his wife.

Child marriages are so rampant and commonplace in central India that no one gives it a second thought. The tradition is that the child bride continues to live with her parents after the wedding until she begins to menstruate. In a ceremony that marks this stage in her life, she then moves into her husband’s house. Whether the conjugal rights of the boy over his child bride exist during the time she lives with her parents varies from community to community.

Parents worry that a girl will not find a good husband if she is not married by the normal age. Girls who do not marry early usually end up marrying men who have been divorced, widowed, or are physically challenged.

Most people who engage in this practice do not do it with bad intentions. Behind this age-old tradition is the ignorant and uncivilized father who wants the best for his daughter, not knowing any other way, not questioning its implications on the lives of these young children.

Mohan Dom from Bettiah in Bihar, father of a 5-year-old girl, says, “In my community it’s necessary to get our daughters married by eight years at the latest. Any delay in that means that we have not been able to find a match for her. If we do get a match, the man would have been married earlier and lost his wife to an ailment or accident. This is why we marry off our daughters very young, though they continue to live with us till they turn 18. In the final send-off, we do not compromise.”

Also from Bettiah, Bihar, Mohan Rawat is the grandfather of a 10-year-old girl. He says he is now paying for his decision not to marry off his granddaughter earlier. “I had decided that my granddaughter will not be married off at a very young age like it is done here, but today she is 10 and now when I am looking for a match I am unable to find one for her because in our Dom community, girls are married at four or five years.”

I also saw child marriages in almost all the government schools I visited in Bettiah, Bihar. There were some Muslim girls who were married and did not have any outward indication of their marital status, but whose names had “Khatun” added to the end.

It was easy to identify which girls were married due to the vermillion on their foreheads, but how many boys were married was difficult to ascertain. Though Indian law has made child marriage illegal, it is still reported widely from the rural parts of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgar, Bihar, and Andhra Pradesh. Though some other third world countries practice child marriage, India alone houses one-third of all child brides.

This practice adversely affects the emotional, mental, and intellectual growth of children, affecting the education of girls directly. Child marriage is one of the major reasons why girls in India drop out of school and never return to pursue further studies.

Burdened with traditions, responsibilities, childbirth, child rearing, and domestic chores, child marriage is truly a violation of human rights. The nutrition, growth, and development of child brides are remarkably stunted. Maternal death is on the rise because girls who marry early in life are less likely to be informed about reproductive issues, making pregnancy-related deaths the leading cause of mortality among married girls between 15 and 19 years of age. These girls are twice as likely to die in childbirth than girls between 20 and 24 years of age. Girls younger than 15 years of age are five times more likely to die in childbirth.

Infants born to mothers under the age of 18 years are more likely to die in their first year than to older mothers, making infant health another serious impact of child marriage. If the infants survive, they are the most likely to suffer from low birth weight, malnutrition, and delayed or stunted physical and cognitive development.

A study conducted in India by the International Institute for Population Sciences and Macro International in 2005 and 2006 showed low fertility control within child marriages. Ninety percent of young married women reported no contraceptive use prior to having their first child. 23.9 percent reported having a child within their first year of marriage, 17.3 percent reported having three or more children over the course of the marriage, 23 percent reported a rapid repeat childbirth, and 15.2 percent reported an unwanted pregnancy.

On top of all this, young girls are more likely to experience domestic violence in their marriages. They are twice as likely to be beaten, slapped, or threatened by their husbands and three times more likely to experience sexual violence. Young brides often show symptoms of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress, according to a study conducted in India by the International Centre for Research on Women.

After spending some private moments with Nikita, I realized it was not right for me to goad her out of her environment and destiny, but at the same time I had trouble letting go that easily. I doubted whether I would ever return to that place and meet her again. I wondered to myself what I could do under these circumstances. I needed a promise from her.

“Will you promise me that you will not leave school after marriage, and that you will never give up on your education?”

The small lady rose to my words. She turned serious and quietly said, “I promise.”

Link of the original publication:
Urmila Chanam
Activist and Journalist

This story was written for World Pulse’s Girls Transform the World Digital Action Campaign.

World Pulse believes that women's stories, recommendations, and collective rising leadership can—and will—bring girls greater access to education which will transform their lives, their families, and communities. The Girls Transform Campaign elicits insightful content from young women on the ground, strengthens their confidence as women, and ensures that influencers and powerful institutions hear their stories.
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Nikita at school
Nikita and me with her other classmates, many of whom are either married or engaged to be married
The school, an institution that dangles between age old traditions of India and the new wave of thought from modernism
Teachers in the school are against the idea of child marraige but can do nothing


Precious M's picture

Small Nikita

It is disturbing to know that young Nikita who is supposed to be playing with toys is already betrothed to a boy. I hope she keeps to her promise of continuing her education. Apart from making child marriage illegal I think the government should take a further step to prosecute those who indulge in such a practice. To me it is just a nightmare.

Meanwhile, Urmila you are a great writer. I enjoyed and understood every bit of the story. Thank you for sharing. I look forward to reading more from you.

Best regards,

My pen speaks

Dear Sister Precious,

I wonder often who are going to be agents of change in my country?? Every part of the society- be it the judiciary, the legislative, the executive or the media, is led by people who are still living the Indian so-called-culture and have been brought up being taught that this was the norm!!

Education and exposure to how things are in other parts of the world have brought some kind of awareness that child marriage is wrong, but years of upbringing makes that knowledge dull and passive.

I still can't figure out what will END THIS, sister.

Thanks ever so much for thinking about Nikita and all the girls out there in India who have their dreams destroyed even before they take aflight.

Love and hugs from India
Urmila Chanam

It takes just one to change many

Nakinti's picture

Oh, poor Nikita, If wishes

Oh, poor Nikita,
If wishes were horses, I will abolish that age-old detrimental practice.
Why would such young chidren engage in such an expensive act reserved for adults...marriage.
I wish the children can be de-brainwashed...OMG!
Urmilla, thank u so much for sharing this story, this is a powerful awareness campaign...a giant step towards eradicating this practice.
Thank u sister.
Sending u love from Cameroon!

Nakinti B. Nofuru
2013 VOF Correspondent
Reporter for Global Press Institute
Bamenda - Cameroon

Dear Nakinti,

In India and elsewhere in the name of culture a lot of harmful practices go unnoticed and compromises on aspirations, health and fulfillment are made. If this is culture, I think we need to review it and make a new culture, one that lets alone our daughters!!!

Felt warmed by your love. Keep sharing and keep walking together. Maybe one day this night will have a dawn.

Love and hugs
Urmila Chanam

It takes just one to change many

Y's picture

Dear Urmila, My heart bleeds

Dear Urmila,
My heart bleeds for Nikita as a symbol of what religious and ancestral fears have wrought, and continue to bring, to our countries.

I think that most religions are based on fear of that which humans haven't yet been able to explain or comprehend. The tragedy for us is that, as humans advance in ability to reason, we continue to go back to the ancient texts to find guidance for our modern world.

I believe that many of our sexual taboos and practices are based on the inability in decades past to assign responsibility for the children, be they healthy or unhealthy. In an effort to assign responsibility for offspring, before DNA, families who were burdened by more children than they felt comfortable supporting on their own sought to create bonds to secure their own futures and those of their children and grandchildren. Mahatma Gandhi confessed that he inflicted on his wife much of what you mentioned as the ills of child marriage. Unfortunately, in my country in 2013, adult marriages fare no better, although mother and child morbidity and mortality rates are much better.

Education of all equally, girls and boys being taught about themselves and each other without religious taboos, is the only way I see to change the problems besetting our path to peace on earth. Only education and understanding will lead to responsible compassion. Only responsible compassion will lead to world peace.


Urmila Chanam's picture

Interesting insight- YOURS!

Dear Y,

I was taken aback at your insight which was unique and a big possibility. I have never seen it that way though. I always believed that all these rituals were to make sure to dominate the woman and make sure the male dominates.If a girl is married off early and made to begin living with her husband and family at an early age, it ensures entry of a woman into the household before she has developed her own personality, independence, opinion and the ability to stand on her own(economically and emotionally). I have heard it many times from elderly women looking for brides for their sons that they should get them early before they (girls) have their own thinking ability!! Living in India, being surrounded by this practice, from all my conversations to people who have experienced this in their own lives, I am made to believe its subjugation and domination behind the act.

I am still very much interested in your perspective! I am sure there are often several reasons behind the same practice.

Love to hear from you again sister.

Much love
Urmila Chanam

It takes just one to change many

Y's picture

Thinking outside our ancestral boxes

Dear Urmila,
We have attempted to make people look less like animals by pasting religious rituals onto them, but unless our spirits are shown how to be more than our animal selves, we continue as simpler animals. Only as we recognize The Sacred Spirit in ourselves and in others through the type of bonding that lovers can share with each other and parents can share with their children will we ever stop acting as predators. This type of bonding takes time and commitment. Only in taking the time to fully experience each other on the level of The Sacred Spirit in each other do we cultivate compassion. Compassion cannot be built by fear, and yet we continue to accept fear as our prime motivator for how we view each other and the earth.

In domestic animal breeding, only a very few prime males are needed to keep the stock population going. The inferior males are usually killed to keep them from breeding their lesser genetics. In the wild they self-select by having deadly contests between the males. In lesser animals, the object is to reproduce the population and they kill or abandon those that put a drain on the greater parts of the populations. We are told that humans have a special spark that allows us to make more complex decisions, but we continue to follow those that rule by the lesser animal rules.

We are still breeding boys for war and procreation and girls to serve the warriors and produce more servants for the animals that have made gods of themselves. Is it any wonder that our men never get past being scared little boys playing at being big brave men and our girls think that mothering is as easy as playing with our dolls? Only by learning to reason and being presented with new ways to approach a subject will our societies ever change.

M. Scott Peck, in his book, A World Waiting To Be Born, says that all societies wear masks to seem alike to each other. He says that, in order to change the dynamic of a group, we must remove our masks. When we do this, all the rules are subject to examination. As this occurs, chaos ensues and the populace becomes frightened. Many simply run back behind the masks. We have a saying in my country, "A devil you know is better than a devil you don't know."

The animals that have held onto human leadership for too many generations have vulnerabilities that can be used to change world. Women have been known to change history through learning the areas of weakness in their leaders. We must study, not only our men but each other and find new ways into their spirits. Only in this way can we soothe them enough to have them allow change. Here in The United States, conception control has freed women's time and energies to dedicate to to finding and building her own strengths before bonding with a mate and possibly procreating. The men are enjoying the attention of their women and the well-spaced children are able to become their most competent selves. Many men are now the stay-at-home parents while their women bring in the financial support.

We must turn our backs on those who lead with fear of death. The death of The Sacred Spirit in humanity is what is at stake. Education and conception control are now available to all who have the determination to plan their own lives and the future of life on earth. We must simply have the courage to seek it wherever we can find it and support each other in our non-violent resistance movement that starts with me, and you, and all of us who are brave enough to create change out of the chaos.

This may amuse you. When I was sixteen, a man who was 22 and from Venezuela, wanted to send me to live with his mother until I was old enough for him to marry. I refused, but was still foolish enough to marry a man who was eight years my senior and admitted that he was getting me young to train me right. His idea of training was as one would break a wild horse. After having two children, I was broken and I left his home before my spirit was completely snuffed out. The rest of the story is too long to get into here.

Blessings to you for your brave efforts.



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