When Usha Choudhary was 13, her parents tried to marry her off to a man she’d never met. It’s an all-too-common experience in the northern state of Rajasthan, which has one of the highest rates of child marriage in India, with 60 percent of women aged 20-24 marrying before the age of 18.
Also common is the physical and psychological trauma that girls endure when they marry early. Choudhary’s own mother was married at 13 to a man who regularly beat her, driving her to a breakdown that led to her contemplating killing herself and her children. A 2012 study conducted by the Lancet found that 56 percent of suicide deaths in Indian women occurred between the ages of 15 and 29, the prime age for child marriages. Moreover, the National Crime Records Bureau estimates that 20,000 Indian housewives take their own lives every year.
Choudhary managed to avoid a forced marriage by going out to work and supporting herself. She’d leave the house at 6 a.m. and not return until 10 p.m., at one point holding five separate jobs. Eventually her parents relented and the wedding was called off.
Her struggle inspired Choudhary to dedicate her life to ending child marriage in Rajasthan. Along with five friends, she created the charity Vikalp Sansthan in 2002, which works to change the tradition of child marriage. Vikalp, which means “alternative” in Hindi, has been responsible for preventing 8,000 child marriages in Rajasthan since its inception. Women & Girls Hub spoke with Choudhary about the organization’s work.
Women & Girls Hub: Why is child marriage so prevalent in Rajasthan?
Usha Choudhary: We still have a lot of casteism in Rajasthan, and because of that patriarchy is everywhere, and with that comes a feudal mentality. From our work at Vikalp we know that child marriage limits choices, and if choices are limited then people are unable to raise their voices against injustices within society. Child marriage is all about keeping the caste system and limiting power in our society.
Women & Girls Hub: The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act was established in 2006 in India. Has this led to a decrease in child marriage?
Choudhary: It has decreased a little. The biggest change we have seen is not the amount of child marriages taking place, but in the age range of the children being married. Prior to the Act we saw a lot of marriages where a 2-year-old, or even a baby, would be getting married and those types of marriages were very open and public. After the act we saw the age increase, so now we see children getting married from the age of 12 to 18. Again, marriage is done before the age of 18 because it prevents the children from being able to make their own life choices. If a parent can control who their child marries, then they can control all aspects of their life. The act is important because it created a punishment for those who participate in a marriage between children. This punishment means that anyone who attends a child marriage ceremony will be held accountable. Women who attend the ceremony are punished with a monetary fee, and men who attend are punished with both a fee and jail time.
Women & Girls Hub: What role will a girl have once she is married?
Choudhary: In India, when a girl is married she is sent to live with her new husband and they will both live at home with his parents. In Rajasthan, when you have a young child getting married, for instance a girl of 8 years old, she will not be sent to live with her husband and in-laws until she is a bit older, normally between the age of 15 to 18. After marriage, the in-laws are allowed to police the girl, they have control over the girl, even while she remains at her parents’ house. Often, when the girl reaches the age of 15, the husband’s family will start pressuring the bride’s family to send their daughter to come and live with them. They will tell the bride’s family, “Please send her, we have a lot of [house]work for her to do.” Once a girl joins her in-laws at home, she will be responsible for doing all of the housework, and she is expected to produce a baby within a year of joining their household. As a girl and the youngest member of the household, the bride will have no say in her life.
Women & Girls Hub: One of the programs you have at Vikalp is an education program to teach boys about child marriage. Why is focusing on educating boys important?
Choudhary: Engaging boys and men is important because female empowerment does not occur in isolation, and in our society, men influence what happens to women. If we want to break the chain of child marriage and create a peaceful and equal society, then we must engage everyone. It is important to point out that child marriage does not just impact the life of the girl, but boys are also victims of child marriage and of our defined patriarchal structure. Our boys’ education program works directly with boys and men from the age of 10 to 30. We give them a platform to analyze their place in society, we help them define what they want from their lives and outline how they can achieve that.
Women & Girls Hub: Why is there is a direct correlation between child marriage and domestic violence?
Choudhary: The reality is that it is not just the girls who have to give up on their dreams when they marry as children. The boys often have to discontinue their education when they get married, and they also lose control over their own lives. The frustration they feel is often taken out on their wives. We had one young groom who admitted to me that he was violent towards his young wife. Through our program we helped him to realize that he was beating his wife because he felt like he had been forced to give up on the dreams he had for his life when he was forced to marry her. Before his marriage he had been going to school to be a teacher, and after his marriage his parents made him discontinue his education and take a job as a day laborer to support his wife. He blamed all of this on his wife. We helped him to realize that neither of them were to blame, they were both victims of child marriage.