The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Child wives break free of chains

Alur (Andhra Pradesh), Nov. 10: Ruksar couldn’t take the torture any more. Then one day, the 14-year-old ran away from her 45-year-old husband who beat her and forced her to slog 15 hours a day on cotton and chilli fields.

That was in January, and life has since changed into one of promise for Ruksar (name changed). She is now studying to become a nurse.

“I want to be a nurse,” the teenager smiles shyly. “I want to help others now.”

Married, beaten and forced to work, girls from Ranga Reddy district — where child marriage is endemic — are now fighting back by leaving their husbands and choosing to study instead.

A survey in April on women who were married but are now single reveals the magnitude of the problem of child marriage here and the new-found determination of the victims to battle the scourge.

The survey, conducted across all 17 blocks of the district by the MV Foundation, an NGO founded by Magsaysay award winner Shanta Sinha, shows eight out of 10 women in the district are married off before they reach 18.

It also shows that 36 per cent of women who were married off but are now single are younger than 25.

“These girls — we counted over 1,800 of them — are unlikely to all have been widowed at such a young age,” says Y. Rajendra Prasad, a coordinator at the foundation.

At a residential camp in Alur village in the district, Ruksar and six other girls who have left their husbands and a life of servitude are busy studying to join mainstream schools. Run by the foundation, the camp has over 120 children.

“All are preparing to join classes in schools — from V to X,” explains Manjula, the camp in-charge, in a mix of Telugu and English.

If Ruksar wants to become a nurse, Susheela, 13, wants to teach.

Soon after her mother died a year ago, her father, a habitual drinker, tried to marry her off to a 40-year-old man with two previous wives.

Realising she would have to leave school, Susheela escaped with the help of one of her father’s cousins who was sympathetic.

“Statistics (from the study), combined with our experience during the survey, shows many girls here are now choosing to run away from an illegal marriage — to education,” says Prasad.

The change, the foundation coordinator adds, is largely because of greater “social consciousness”.

Many villages here have set up forums to protect children’s rights. These bodies include villagers who take responsibility to ensure that children are not made to work and girls are not married off before the legal age of 18.

“Child marriages were the norm in our village. Over the past two years, only two girls have been married before 18,” says P. Venkaiah, a former sarpanch of Pulimaddi village.

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