“I want to study but my parents have fixed my marriage. Please help me,” a frantic call for help from a 15-year-old in Kerala not only saved her but stopped nine more underage girls from being married off.
The call came from Karuvarakkundue, an impoverished village in the state’s Malappuram district, where child marriages are common. Often women are grandmothers even before they turn 40.
The girl who called Childline, a helpline for children in distress, on Sunday said she wanted to continue school but her parents were forcing her into marriage.
Childline officials rushed to the village and found nine more girls under the age of 18, the legal age of marriage for a girl, were to be wedded in the coming weeks when schools close for summer vacation.
None of the would-be grooms were underage. For boys, the legal age for marriage in India is 21.
Most of these girls belong to poor families. Their parents are daily-wagers who want to marry them off young to avoid giving a big dowry, another problem that plagues economically backward Malappuram.
Malappuram is a Muslim majority district, where the minority community accounts for 70% of the population.
Chidline volunteers said they initially contacted the local panchayat member but she refused to intervene, fearing a backlash from the villagers.
The volunteers then sought the help of district administration and social welfare board officers who talked the parents out of the wedding plans.
“Initially, the parents resisted our move. We had to hold several counseling sessions to make them aware of the dangers of child marriage,” Childline district coordinator Anwar Karakkadan said.
“Some of the parents even told us that we would have to find a suitable match for their daughters once they were of marriageable age.”
A few of the grooms’ families said they would wait for the girls to turn 18.
Set to check crime against minors, Chidline has a toll-free phone number as well as drop boxes across the state for children to report their problems, which vary from domestic abuse to sexual assault.
The recent arrest of Robin Vaddakumchiryil, a vicar of St Sebastian church in Kottiyoor, for an alleged rape came after a girl called up Childline.
Despite a vigorous campaign, child marriages are common in remote parts of Kerala, which in 1991 was declared the first complete literate state of the country.
The scourge, however, is not confined to Kerala. Reports of children being married off keep coming in from across the country even though law bars such marriages.