- In Ranga Reddy district, 100 child marriages stopped this year
- Helpline advertised by schools and cops being used by teens
- In drought, families want to cut expenses, say daughters should marry
RANGA REDDY, TELANGANA : At 16, Bhavani wants nothing more than to clear her Class 10 exams and go to college so that she can someday teach other young girls.
But last month, her parents tried to arrange her marriage by inviting a young man and his parents over to assess her. It took all her courage and willpower to stand upto them. She threatened her parents that if they persisted in trying to marry her off, she would call the cops.
“I told my father I won’t marry, come what may. They said ‘okay’. I said ‘you are saying okay now, but if you again force me later, I will complain’. They have promised to let me finish college and then only will they get me married,” she told NDTV.
Bhavani attends a government-run school in a village in the Ranga Reddy district of Telangana. At least five girls in her class escaped becoming child brides last month. A phone call to a childline helpline number (1098) inscribed on a wall in their headmaster’s office became their secret weapon. The very next day, their parents were called in for counselling and advised that if they did not cancel the marriages, they would face criminal cases.
More than 100 child marriages have been stopped just in this one district of Telangana so far this year. The numbers have shocked even the government.
The drought that has swallowed hope and incomes in Telangana over the last three years has left families desperate to cut expenses. A Class 9 student says that when her father sold his land, he pointed out that the distress sale would allow just enough money to afford a small dowry for her. If they waited till she came of age, the money would be spent, her parents insisted.
There’s also the fact that after graduating from Class 10, girls have to move to distant junior colleges with expensive fees. If that’s not affordable, farmers who work long hours in the fields, worry about the safety of teen daughters left at home.
Rema Rajeshwari is the top cop in the district. She says she knew that child marriages take place in this district on the outskirts of the IT hub of Hyderabad, but a closer look left her shocked.
”Just opposite our police station, there was a marriage. A government official’s daughter. They told me the girl is only 15 and the person is 28, a software engineer working in the US. We were shocked,” she said. “We stopped 30 child marriages in 30 days.”
A campaign to prevent child brides in the area of Ranga Reddy was rolled out quickly. Any tip-off or alert for help made on a helpline or to an activist or a police station would be followed up by a team who would personally visit, counsel, if necessary, shift the girl to a government-run home.
Soumya, 16, was not among those who have been saved. She was married two years ago,when she was in Class 8.
“We don’t even know what marriage is. It is our parents who are forcing us into it. They said they would send me after I graduated from Class 10. But my in-laws fought, my husband came and beat me badly with a belt, and they took me away.”
Unable to cope with the shock and stress, Soumya fell ill. Her “husband” and his family sent her back to her parents’ house, accusing her of “disobedience”. With belated support from her mother and local activists, she has returned to school.
It was a decade ago that a 14-year-old child bride named Susheela from Ranga Reddy district was honoured with a national award for bravery for walking out of a child marriage. She is spoken of often here, with young girls using her example to stay their course.
(Real names for teens not used throughout this story.)