Shanti Dhakad of Madhya Pradesh’s Raisen district got married when she was 13. Six years later, her husband died in an accident, forcing the illiterate Dhakad into manual labour to raise her three children.
Thousands of kilometres away, Leelabati Shaw, now in her late twenties, was forced to work as a maid in Kolkata after losing her husband when she was 18.
"Life is tough for a teenage widow. Tracking eyes and harassment are common,” said Shaw, who lost her 11-year-old son last year.
Shanti and Leelabati are among the nearly 4,50,000 across the country who lost their spouse after an underage marriage.
Uttar Pradesh leads the list, followed by West Bengal, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, an analysis of 2011 census figures by an NGO Vikas Samvad shows.
The report says that nearly 80,000 children in UP have lost their spouse or are separated or divorced from them, followed by West Bengal at 39,792, Bihar at 29,536 and Madhya Pradesh at 29,441. Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are home to the largest number of people wed below the legal age – 18 for women and 21 for men – with Madhya Pradesh home to nearly 9 lakh such children.
India is home to one-third of the all underage brides worldwide, according to a recent report by Unicef. Most of these weddings are shrouded in secrecy and performed in mass ceremonies around the sacred annual Hindu event of Akshaya Tritiya or Akha Teej. This year's event will be held next week.
A deep-rooted social acceptance of such practices, coupled with loopholes in the law has trumped authorities trying to crack down on perpetrators, fuelling a vicious cycle of malnutrition, poor health and ignorance.
"There is a loophole in the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act. It does not declare child marriages illegal, but leaves an option that the girl can keep it alive and the marriage can be 'revived' after the girl turns 18. Since there is a window of the girl's consent, in many cases police can't take action against those responsible for marrying off children," said Debasish Banerjee, chief of the Kolkata chapter of the Human Rights Law network.
Many of these women are vulnerable. Once widowed or separated, they are socially ostracised and often become subject to sexual or other violence within the home or outside, said women and child rights activist Kumud Singh.
“Life is a battle for young widows. Social stigmas come as a mountain of pressure on young girls, making their lives painful and harsh. In the case of boys, re-marriage is a common solution but when a tragedy of losing a partner hits the wife, only miseries are left for her. Though a lot has changed, yet in the remote areas of UP, the practice is still quite prevalent,” said Prof Roop Rekha Verma, former vice-chancellor of Lucknow University.
To battle the scourge, the Madhya Pradesh government has intensified its Lado campaign, roping in religious leaders, community heads, printing press owners, caterers, traditional community cooks and transporters. These people usually have information about child marriages, especially mass marriage ceremonies.
State minister for women and child development Maya Singh said the government aimed to eradicate the practice but needed the support of all sections of society.
"Under our Lado campaign, we prevented 51,000 child marriages last year. We have developed about 43,000 core groups that are helping us in the matter," she said.
This makes the job more difficult for authorities as parents are often complicit in the arrangement, with children matched for weddings often before they even learn to talk.
One exception, however, was the case of a young girl in Madhya Pradesh named Lado, who was betrothed when she was just one, but her mother lodged a police complaint to stop her daughter from getting married when she turned eight.
Such underage marriages were a huge violation of child rights and many such minor girls succumb to maternal health complications, said Sachin Jain of Vikas Samvad.
"It is about restricting the rights of children in all ways, leading them to lose out on most opportunities in life and get dictated by adult norms," he added.
(Names have been changed to protect their identity)
(with inputs from Kolkata and Lucknow)