When Laxmi Sargara hit the headlines in April 2012 by becoming the first woman in the country to annul her child marriage, 21-year-old Santa Meghwal was still in Class 12.
Like Laxmi, she was a toddler – just 11 months old – when she was married off in a family mass wedding. She cut out the newspaper report on her role model’s marriage annulment and kept it in her bag for two years before finally getting through to Kriti Bharti, the Jodhpur-based child rights activist who had helped Laxmi.
In May 2015, Santa filed a petition for annulment of her child marriage at a Jodhpur family court. By October the same year, she had become a free woman.
UNICEF defines child marriage as a marital alliance struck before the people involved have attained 18 years of age, and considers it a human rights violation. According to the National Family Health Survey 2015-16 (NFHS-4), 35% of the women in the 20-24 years age group get married before 18. Some of the problems arising through such an event are loss of education opportunities, segregation from family and friends, sexual exploitation, early pregnancy, health risks, increased vulnerability to domestic violence, higher infant mortality rate, lightweight babies, and pre-mature birth.
The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act-2006, which replaced the Child Marriage Restraint Act-1929, had introduced a section for nullifying marriages solemnised in childhood within two years of the partners attaining maturity. Annulling a marriage simply erases it from the records, as if it never took place.
Child marriages in Rajasthan enjoy traditional, cultural and religious support. However, when children grow up, they find that the alliance is unmatched – the man is less educated than the woman, he doesn’t want her to continue her studies, the families don’t approve of women working, or the men are found to be medically unfit – and want to call it off. But that takes a hard battle against a feudal society. The caste elders, who have a hand in pushing child marriages, oppose the woman’s decision.
When Santa filed the annulment petition, a caste panchayat at Rohicha Kalan village in Luni block, slapped a fine of Rs 16 lakh on the family and ex-communicated it for two years. Bharti, who fought Santa’s case, was threatened with gang rape and mutilation. However, Santa was determined to end the marriage because the ‘husband’ was harassing her as well as her friends. “I wanted to study and get a government job. Keeping that in view, how could I live with an alcoholic who had absolutely no interest in education?” Santa asked.
“Life was difficult for some time, but I’m a free woman now,” she beamed, proudly holding out the newspaper clipping that she still carries in her tote bag. She has now graduated from college, and is writing competitive examinations to bag a government job.
Twenty-year-old Ashok Bishnoi was married off at the tender age of four along with sisters, Priyanka (who was just 10 months old) and Mamta, during a funeral ceremony to save money. In accordance with Rajasthani customs, Ashok had to tie the knot with a girl from Priyanka’s in-law’s family.
Ashok and his sisters learnt about their marriages just two years ago, after which they decided to reverse the archaic tradition. The three filed petitions in a Jodhpur court on April 16, 2015. While Ashok and Priyanka obtained their annulment decrees in a record two days, Mamta’s case is still in court.
Bharti’s Saarthi Trust – which has assisted in 31 such cases across Rajasthan – said nobody used the annulment clause for the first six years after the law was amended in 2006.
“We also faced many problems in the beginning – the courts treated annulment petitions as divorce petitions. There were two reasons for this: one, rules made for implementation of the 2006 Act are silent on annulment, and two, there’s lack of judicial awareness on annulment,” said Bharti.
The 29-year-old activist described child marriage annulment as a curative approach that removes girls from the “dark room” of early marriage. “Why, then, should victims of an early marriage carry the burden of divorce when annulment is possible?” she asked.
Bharti said the authorities were focusing more on prevention of child marriages, rather than annulment. “Prevention is good, but the curative approach should also be looked into,” said the activist, who has chosen to remain single herself.