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Married At 12, Suicidal Girl Wins Right To Divorce

AN Indian girl who was married off against her will when she was 12, has won a battle to have her two-year marriage annulled so she can go back to school.
Chenigall Suseela, from a tiny village in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, is one of the few child brides to have fought and won against the ancient practice of underage marriage in the state.
Village elders, the keepers of local law, granted her wish only after she went to the police, threatened to commit suicide and finally enlisted the help of a child-protection organisation that usually rescues child labourers to return them to school.
Suseela, who was born into an impoverished low-caste untouchable family, was married two years ago to a 15-year-old boy in a neighbouring village in Rangareddy district. The match had been made years earlier by their parents.
She was forced to leave her family and move in with his, but six months ago she went to the police to seek help against her husband, whom she accused of abusing her. But elders on both sides opposed her demand for separation, saying local Hindu custom forbade it.
Marriage is illegal under the ages of 18 for girls and 21 for boys, but the practice is still common in rural parts of India, particularly in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.
Few marriages in India are formally registered, and religious ceremonies are regarded as socially if not legally binding, even when the spouses are under age.
Unable to get a legal separation, Suseela's only recourse was to seek help from the elders. When they refused, she returned to her village and threatened to commit suicide if they forced her to go back to her husband's home.
She demanded the right to return to education and sought the help of the MV Foundation for child labourers.
Her parents eventually admitted they were wrong to have married the girl off without her consent.
The elders of the two villages met the young couple and their families last week and pronounced them divorced. A document was signed by both parties, and witnessed by foundation activists and a police officer, annulling the marriage and requiring the groom to return the valuables, including gold and cash, that were given his family as a dowry at the marriage.
More than 200,000 minors are believed to be married off in rural India every year, many of them in mass ceremonies on two astrologically auspicious days. Brides can even be toddlers and are usually returned to their families after the ceremony, but those approaching or having reached puberty are sent straight to the grooms' homes.
Police rarely stop the marriages, and efforts to raise awareness or intervene are usually left to social activists, often at great personal risk to themselves.
In 1992 an activist in Rajasthan was gang-raped when she tried to stop a child marriage. Earlier this year another had her hands cut off with a sword by the irate father of two young girls who was trying to marry them off.

The Mercury (27-6-2005)
Catherine Philp

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