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
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)