HARDOI, INDIA — Mamta Sharma is an unlikely rebel.
When her parents told her school was out because she was 7 and ready to help with housework, she said nothing. When her parents told her she was getting married because she was now 13, she said nothing. And when her husband — 10 years older than her — slapped her across the face because she spilled milk on his new shirt on their wedding night, she said nothing.
But the night Rupali, her daughter, was born on the floor of a rundown rural clinic, with nothing but a tattered blanket to cover her, Sharma made a promise to herself: her daughter would not have her life. She would have a childhood, she would go to school, and she would not be married before she was 18.
Here, that is a promise almost impossible to keep.
Sharma is sitting in the courtyard of her home in Sikandarpur, a village in Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s most populous and poorest states. Few homes have running water, most families survive on less than $1 a day and more than 70 per cent of girls are married before they turn 18.
Poverty and tradition have long propelled parents to turn their daughters into child brides. Now, there is another cause: safety. Reports of rapes and molestations are soaring in this part of India, with unmarried girls particularly vulnerable. Family honour is also at risk — villagers don’t even like to use the word rape. The euphemism is “the girl was dragged into the fields.”
“Rupali is 10 now,” says Sharma, 24. “My family and even the villagers have been asking openly if I have found a boy for her.”
The United Nations says more than 10 million girls under the age of 18 get married every year around the world, mostly in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
About 40 per cent of those marriages take place in India, where the minimum legal age for marriage has been 18 for women and 21 for men since 1978. Statistics from the last census show that child marriage has gradually fallen in most states since 1981.
But in rural areas, it is still three times higher than urban India.
In Rajasthan, a state in western India often called the epicentre of child marriage, more than half of girls are married before age 15. Many are 4 or 5 when they are married, according to activists.
In Hyderabad, men from oil-rich Arab countries pay families of poor young girls for temporary “brides,” some as young as 11 and 12, in what is de facto child prostitution.
In Uttar Pradesh, 40 per cent of girls get married before they turn 18, according to the state government. Unofficially, social workers say it is as high as 60 per cent.
“Girls have always been married off early . . . so if you tell a family that they should wait until she is at least 18, their question is ‘Why,’ ” says Prashant Gade, who works for CARE India in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, and often visits villages around Hardoi where the international agency runs programs. “They ask why should they change their customs when they have worked well for generations before.”
Social workers are unsure precisely when safety fears joined tradition as yet another reason for early marriages. Gade says it has been at least two decades. “It has become worse in the past few years. It’s hard to figure out if it is because there are more incidents (rapes and abductions) or if more are being reported now.”
A June 2011 Thomson Reuters Foundation survey said India was the worst G20 country in which to be a woman, citing infanticide, child marriage and dowry deaths. (Canada was rated the best country for women.)
In another poll, by Reuters, India was ranked the fourth most dangerous country in the world for women, behind Afghanistan, Congo and Pakistan. India was cited, among other things, for “trafficking and sexual slavery.”
Uttar Pradesh, home to more than 200 million people, made international headlines in May when two teenage cousins were gang-raped and their bodies found hanging from a mango tree in Katra village. The girls, 14 and 15, had reportedly gone into the fields because there was no washroom in their home. (Authorities said last week the girls committed suicide because of shame over a relationship with a boy. Social workers are not convinced.)
In the following weeks, more shocking rapes were reported, including one in a rural police station where a woman was attacked by low-level officials. New Delhi newspapers asked: Is Uttar Pradesh the most unsafe state for women in India?
Hundreds of thousands of adult men from Uttar Pradesh work in Punjab, the prosperous northern state, as daily labourers on farms. That leaves their families — elderly parents, spouses and children — on their own for much of the year, and vulnerable.
In June, police in this state reported a 55-per-cent increase in rape cases in 2013 — from 1,963 in 2012 to 3,050. More than half the victims were under 18.
Gade says most sex assaults are not reported to police for fear of more shame. But in villages where they happen, people always know. In these communities — and most of India — a non-virgin is considered ruined for marriage, he says.
In such an environment, it is difficult for social workers to persuade families to let their daughters delay marriage and continue at school.
When Mridula Srivastav, a New Delhi health specialist who worked for the International Centre for Research on Women, a global non-profit working against early marriage, visited villages near Hardoi, she was frequently asked: “If I am willing to get my daughter married late, will you take responsibility for her protection, that she will not be raped or assaulted?”
When Sharma was 12, a 14-year-old neighbour named Neema was raped one winter night when she went out to look for a missing goat. Sharma says she was abducted by higher-caste men from a neighbouring village. Neema reappeared three days later and, within weeks, her family had sent her to relatives in another part of the state. Soon, the family moved away, too.
Sharma had no idea what had happened or what it meant.
But she was soon told she could no longer go to school, she could no longer play hopscotch with other girls on the dusty streets and if she had to go to the toilet after dusk, she had to take someone with her.
“I liked going to school . . . I had friends there.”
Ten months later, her mother and grandmother took her aside and gave her “good” news: there was a man, 10 years her senior and in a village 200 kilometres away, whom she would marry in a month.
“I said once that I didn’t want to get married because I was scared of leaving my family.”
Her mother slapped her and reminded her that she was married at 12 and her grandmother at 10.
Sharma was 13.
Her family bought her a bright red sari, two silver bangles and a brown shawl. One chilly evening in February 2003, three open Jeeps packed with people roared into the village and she was wedded to Surinder as the two families and villagers ate meat, drank moonshine and danced.
“The entire village was there,” she says.
Child marriage is punishable by a $2,200 fine and two years in prison for anyone who performs, conducts or, as a spectator, fails to prevent it. But in remote villages, child marriages are usually supported by the entire community.
The morning after the wedding, Sharma left with the wedding party to her new home.
The beatings started the same night.
Sharma’s mother, Shivdeni, 46, and grandmother, Savitri, 66, flank her as she talks, but they rarely look up. Sometimes, Savitri mumbles. They both sniff and appear to wipe their eyes.
A year after Sharma got married — a year of almost daily beatings and back-breaking housework — Rupali was born. Not much changed: Sharma was still beaten by her husband for every slight. He was especially angry that she gave birth to a daughter.
“I was young, I didn’t know what to do,” Sharma says. She did not tell her mother about the abuse.
Then, two years after she was married, her husband died. Sharma’s in-laws blamed her for his death — he had been drinking heavily and crashed his motorcycle into a truck on a highway.
Sharma’s mother-in-law began administering beatings — if Sharma woke up late, if there was too much salt in the food, if Rupali was crying. Sharma still didn’t say anything. But one day her mother-in-law slapped Rupali because she wouldn’t stop whimpering. Sharma finally told her mother and her father came to rescue her and Rupali.
Back in Hardoi, Sharma had a big problem: How on earth could she keep her promise to Rupali?
Two years ago, Poonam Pal moved in next door to Sharma.
Many years ago, Pal did the unthinkable: she told her family that she would not get married before she was 18. “I was adamant . . . they tried everything to get me married when I was 14 and again a couple of years later but I said I wouldn’t eat or drink if they forced me.”
Against all odds, it worked.
Two years ago, when she was 19, she married Sudhir Kumar. The two met first, something unheard of in rural India. She even told him she wanted to work and he and his family agreed.
Kumar is 25, works as a scooter mechanic apprentice. He helps in the kitchen, he buys groceries every week. When he is around Pal, he behaves like he is in awe of her. They have decided to wait at least five years to have children.
“My life has worked out the way I thought it should,” Pal says.
Her confidence and courage come in part from attending a special residential school for a year when she was 12. Called Udaan, which means “flight,” the school is for girls from 11 to 14 who have never been to school. They are taught basic mathematics, science, Hindi and personal hygiene and welfare.
Since starting in 1999, the school, which counts CARE India as one of its sponsors, has admitted about 100 girls every year.
The age of the girls is important: it is when their families begin to think about their marriage, says principal Urmila Srivastava. For one year, the school shelters the girls from forced marriages, gives them an education and healthy food.
“The girls are also made to understand that early marriage is not good for them, not good for the children they will bear and for the family,” says Srivastava.
It isn’t easy getting parents to agree to allow their daughters to be away for 11 months, but Srivastava has persuasive powers. Sometimes, she says, it helps that the girls come from poor families and parents are relieved to have one less mouth to feed.
Pal went in a scrawny, timid preteen and returned a confident 13-year-old who stood up to her father when he told her it was time to get married. She even persuaded him to let her take sewing lessons.
Now she runs a sewing school for girls who are not allowed to go to school.
It is early morning and Pal is wearing a bright pink sari, her head covered demurely. There are about eight teen girls in her backyard cutting and sewing paper. Later, they will graduate to cloth. The girls pester Pal to tell stories from Udaan or how she escaped early marriage.
The village women clearly respect Pal. But few, it seems, want their daughters to grow up to be like her.
“She did what no other girl I know has done (in this area),” says Jairunisa Sagar, whose 13-year-old daughter, Rubina, has been attending the sewing classes. “But I have four daughters. If I don’t marry them young, I will have to give a lot of dowry. . . . I cannot afford that.”
Sagar is scared for her four daughters — Rubina is the eldest. “You hear about rapes and abductions every day. This world is not safe for our girls.”
It is a conversation Pal has almost every day. Sometimes, it is matter-of-fact, other times, it is intense.
“There is nothing much I can do except talk to people,” she says. “Sometimes it is very disillusioning.”
Rupali, gangly and quiet, is in Grade 4 at the local school on the outskirts of the village. There are only two other girls in the class. Her mother walks her there every morning and is waiting when school lets out. At home, Rupali does homework and plays outside with other girls. It’s an uneventful life, typical for 10-year-olds in many parts of the world.
Except, in this case, Rupali knows the pressure her mother is facing.
Sharma’s mother and grandmother want life to proceed the way it has for generations.
“They are scared for Rupali’s safety and they also worry that if she studies too much, we won’t be able to find a groom in the community,” says Sharma.
At a multi-village religious gathering in April, Sharma says multiple women — almost all strangers — approached her offering to find “suitable grooms” in their villages. Others pointedly asked her how old Rupali was.
It was their way of saying that it was time to find a match for Rupali, says Sharma, with a wry smile.
At any other time, it would have been awkward. This time, Pal was also there. “I told them that my daughter wants to be like Poonam.”
A few weeks after I met Sharma and Rupali, a 25-year-old woman was abducted by four men from a nearby village. The woman was taken to a government school, gang-raped and beaten with a stick.
She bled to death.
It isn’t clear why she was targeted — local newspaper reports suggested her only fault was that she was out alone in the evening.