As Kriti Bharti walked towards the front door of a rundown rural house near Jaipur, in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, her heart was beating fast. She had been planning this mission for the past three days – ever since receiving an anonymous phone call telling her that a family was trying to get their eight-year-old daughter married to a relative’s 11-year-old son. Kriti was determined to prevent that and rescue the girl.
She knew it would not be easy. Fighting age-old customs in India is fraught with dangers. “Some orthodox families will go to any lengths to protect their deep-rooted traditions and wouldn’t think twice about hurting or even killing anybody who stood in their way,’’ Kriti says. “So I had to be careful.’’
She knew from experience that contacting the police would be useless because the family would immediately deny their actions and remain quiet for a couple of weeks, only to go ahead with the child marriage later. “I had to rescue the girl and ensure she was not married off against her wishes at such a young age.’’
Kriti walked purposefully to the door, looked around and then realised the house appeared deserted and silent. A sixth sense told her something was not right. Usually there would be a buzz and some activity in a home where a child marriage is being held. Sensing trouble, she paused near the front door then decided to look through an open window to see if she could spot the girl or her family inside.
The next moment her mobile phone rang. It was a volunteer who worked with her. “Run,’’ she said, as soon as Kriti answered the call. “Don’t go inside the house or even hang around the house. It’s a trap. Leave. Now.’’
Kriti calmly put her phone in her bag and nonchalantly walked away back to her car.
Although she was terrified that someone would run out and grab her, she continued to act calmly, not willing to do anything that might give her away. Once inside her car, she turned the keys in the ignition just in time to see a group of men emerge from the house. She quickly put her foot on the accelerator and the car sped away, churning up a dust cloud.
Peering into the rear view mirror Kriti found the men were not following her. She breathed a sigh of relief. If they did follow her, she had a plan of action: she would head to the nearest police station and seek help.
“I was just lucky that time,’’ says the 26-year-old child rights activist and rehabilitation psychologist. A volunteer who works with her had run a check on the initial phone call she’d received and realising it was a trap, tipped her off at the last minute. “I’m sure if they’d caught me, they would have killed me.’’
Kriti says she is aware that there are “a lot of people who are determined to stop me from doing my work – saving child brides’’.
She has a group of around five volunteers to assist her but on almost all child bride-saving missions, she prefers to go alone. “I don’t want to put the lives of others at risk,’’ she says.
This was not the first time the young woman had tried to save a child bride from an arranged marriage. It was also not the first time she had escaped with her life in the nick of time. “Over the past five years since I’ve started working to stop child marriages, I’ve helped to annul over 150 child marriages,’’ she says. “I’ve also received more than 50 threats from families warning me of dire consequences, even death if I interfered in their personal issues.’’
Kriti has been threatened by not only families but also members of caste councils and even local politicians but she refuses to be intimidated. Thankfully, so far she has not been harmed seriously.
“Death threats have become a part of my life now and I have come to accept it as part of this job,’’ she says.
Kriti from Jodhpur, in Rajasthan, is an award-winning anti-child-marriage activist and women and children’s rights campaigner who has been working to help children for over five years. She single handedly established the charity Saarthi Trust in 2012 to help victims of India’s child marriage crisis and set up another charity, Badhtey Kadam, to help poor street children who are looking to improve their lives.
Identifying with their sadness
Raised by her single mother, Indu Chopra, 58, a government employee, the activist grew up learning to cope with the knocks she received in life: Her father, she says, abandoned Kriti and her mother when she was two years old and Kriti was bullied for having no father throughout her childhood.
“I had a tough childhood so, although different in many ways, I can identify with victims of child marriages and their grief for their lost childhood,” Kriti says. “I was extremely sad to grow up without a father and I can in some way identify with the sadness in the children I meet who are forced into arranged marriages at a very young age. They just want to be children, with no worries or fears, but their families thrust them into relationships they are not ready for and even want. So when I grew up, I wanted to help such children, give them a life to look forward to.’’
It was while Kriti was doing her masters degree in rehabilitation psychology from Rajasthan University in 2007 that she began to work with children who had experienced traumatic situations and required counselling.
“I remember the first girl I worked with was a victim of child trafficking,’’ she says. The child had been rescued by a charity and was in at a care centre in Jodhpur. As a rehabilitation psychologist Kriti was asked by the care centre to provide the girl with counselling. She says, “She required several sessions of counselling before she could return to the mainstream but once she got over her fears she became more positive and wanted to improve her life.’’
Realising that offering a helping hand to girls in need at the right time could change their lives, Kriti decided to make this her life’s mission. “I started counselling children who were involved in child labour, living on the streets and child marriage victims. It was so fulfilling to see the change in them and the more children I saw, the more I felt compelled to help as many as possible,’’ she says.
After working with street children for around seven months, she found that one of the biggest issues facing children, particularly those in the rural areas, was child marriages.
The tradition of child marriage is deep- rooted and centuries-old in India’s largely patriarchal society. It not only violates the rights of children but also exploits and robs them of their childhood. “Children as young as four and five are often married off by their families as part of tradition,’’ says Kriti.
Although the Indian government passed a law – the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA) in 2006 – which prohibits the marriage of a male younger than 21 and a female under 18 even if both are willing, it has done little to help those still tangled up in the tragic web. Child marriages are still common in rural and even some urban areas of India, she says.
According to a 2009 Unicef report titled ‘State of the World’s Children’, nearly half of the world’s child marriages – 40 per cent – occur in India. The report went on to say that a shocking 56 per cent of women surveyed had married before age 18 in rural areas.
Kriti, however, believes it is impossible to confirm a number. “In India, millions of children are married by their families when they’re still learning to crawl or walk. And the families are very good at keeping it a secret lest they invite legal action. That’s why I am convinced it’s impossible to know the real number of child marriages.’’
While in many cases, the girl would go to live with her husband once she reached puberty, in some cases, the girl was often plucked from the secure environs of her own family and taken away to live in her in-laws house at the tender age of seven or eight. “It was appalling and I was determined to do my bit to stop this horrendous practice,’’ says Kriti. Kriti believes the lack of stringent laws along with tradition, religion, and more importantly the support of the community Jati Panchayats – a self appointed group of villagers who call themselves the caste council and often impose its views on social issues, marriages and even legal disputes – are the main reasons child marriages are still such a widespread issue.
“Today’s laws give people the freedom to choose and live their life as they wish so child marriages are nothing but an outdated concept and India needs to desperately catch up with these modern human rights,’’ she says.
“I’ve met many families who have married their five-year-old boy and a two-year-old girl in secret. They’ll solemnise the official marriage as soon as their children are of the legal marriageable age, which is 18 for girls and 21 for boys. In the eyes of everyone else it is a legal wedding but the family have had them paired since the day they were in their nappies. It is so very wrong.’’
In 2008, Kriti decided to formalise helping children in need and set up a charity called Saarthi Trust. Her mission is to help victims of child marriages divorce their partners if they are unhappy with the arrangement or to rescue them even before they are married off.
“We’ve stopped several ‘marriages’ from becoming official. So as soon as the girl turns 18, the age when she can move away from her family’s house and go to live with her husband, she can approach me for help. I do all I can including providing legal help to stop her from having to move in with her husband who she was forced to marry maybe 15 years earlier.’’
News of support spreads
Many of the girls get to hear about Kriti’s work through word of mouth, she says. Sita Vishnoi, from Jaipur, cannot thank her enough. She was married at the tender age of two – a secret she came to know when she turned 18.
“I was told by my father that I have to go and stay with my husband,’’ says the now 25-year-old. “I was shocked because I’d never known I was married. My father and uncle were the only members of my family who ever knew the marriage took place and they kept it a secret from the whole family to avoid controversy and any kind of legal action being taken.
“I heard about Kriti’s work from a friend of mine who was also in the same situation as I was. I contacted her and asked her to help me.’’
Sita was reluctant to approach village authorities because she wasn’t sure they would help her, as her family was well known in the area. She also didn’t know much about the legalities of the marriage she had unwittingly entered into.
Kriti says, “Sita contacted me over the telephone more than a year ago and explained her situation. I’ve been working on her case since then and hopefully the marriage annulment will be finalised in a month.
“Sita’s family was upset that she was getting her marriage annulled so washed their hands of her. But she is hopeful they will change their minds.’’ Kriti is helping Sita to get a job and learn a new trade as a seamstress. “I want her to become independent, have a life of her own and then decide on marriage and such important things in life.’’
Kriti often dips into her own savings – she works part-time as a teacher – to pay for the legal and rehabilitation costs of the victims she saves. Some big-hearted individuals also donate to the charity, she says.
Kriti hit local and international headlines last year when she helped 18-year-old Laxmi Sargara, from Jodhpur, become the first woman in India to annul her child marriage. Her story was published in Friday in July. Since then, many communities have started to sit up and take notice of Kriti’s influence.
“That case definitely brought much-needed awareness about India’s child marriages and gave courage to hundreds of other girls to challenge the tradition. Many girls have come forward since,’’ Kriti said.
“Annulling a marriage is only the first step. The victim requires a lot more help after that. She needs advice on rehabilitation, has to be guided to be on her own and needs a lot of counselling to build her confidence.’’
Girls aren’t the only ones who are forced into marriage. “I’ve helped several boys too who were victims of child marriage,’’ says Kriti.
Sukhdev Khadav, from Jodhpur, says he was married against his will at the age of 16. “My father forced me to marry a girl who was the daughter of his good friend,’’ says the now 20-year-old. “I had to follow his wishes.’’
But Sukhdev wanted to find a wife of his choice after completing his studies and getting a job. “When I realised my parents would not allow me to exercise my rights, I decided to contact Kriti and sought her help.’’ He is now waiting to have his marriage annulled.
Kriti has sacrificed her own life to dedicate her time to helping girls that are much less fortunate. “I have no idea when I’ll have time to marry and have children of my own. But right now, this is important. I hope what I am doing will shape the future of India’s daughters.’’
Kriti says that no matter how many death threats she gets, she will never stop trying to save child brides. “Some people will go to any extent to safeguard their family’s honour, but I will also do my very best for change. I know my life is at risk but I can’t sit back and watch these children suffer, I can’t,’’ she adds.