It was late afternoon when 14-year-old Reshma was getting ready for her wedding at a beauty parlor in the Old City of Hyderabad. Reshma was one of 33 brides, all under the age of 18, to be married that night in an illegal ceremony at 3 a.m.
Reshma thought marriage was her only option until she met the girls of Global Fund for Women grantee partner, Shaheen, at the beauty parlor. The girls, all survivors of forced marriages, search beauty parlors in the Old City, looking for others just like Reshma who are preparing for weddings they don’t want. Shaheen finds out where the marriage is taking place and organizes what they call “sting operations” – going in a group, with video cameras and journalists, to stop the wedding. They expose the wedding guests: religious leaders and police who receive bribes for turning a blind eye to the law, along with family members and of course, the groom. The group also started a hotline for child brides to call when they need help stopping a forced marriage.
At the ceremony, Reshma had the women power of Shaheen behind her to refuse her marriage. And it worked. After 18, she married a man of her choice and chose when to have her two children.
Although the legal age for marriage in India is 18 for girls and 21 for boys, its 24 million underage child brides constitute nearly half of all child brides in the world. Shaheen changes this abysmal stat by working in the Old City, where two-thirds of residents live below the poverty line. They operate in 20 slums, with marginalized communities of Muslims and Dalits. According to Shaheen’s founder, Jameela Nishat, women in the Old City are not allowed to look men in the eye, and cannot attend local counsel meetings. The few public schools don’t have proper facilities and only serve girls up to age eight. Hospitals are few and far between.
Wealthy men from both inside and outside India take advantage of such rampant poverty by offering cash to parents if they sign temporary marriage contracts. They marry the girl, stay in Hyderabad for a brief period during which time they rape and abuse her, and then leave town and their bride behind. According to Jameela it is common for girls to be forced to marry multiple times – she knows one girl who has been married and divorced 17 times before the age of 16.
Girls between the ages of 10 and 18 who escape the abuse and rape in a forced marriage, come to Shaheen for shelter, education, and healthcare. Determined to stop the practice of child marriage, the women and girls of Shaheen document every sting operation and bring the names of those involved to the police, even though, according to Jameela, police don’t have a good track record of enforcing the minimum age of marriage law. And if the marriages happen within Muslim communities, they claim it’s out of their jurisdiction. Despite arguments made to justify the practice of child marriage, including religious and cultural beliefs and deep-rooted traditions, child marriage is a form of violence. Child marriage is rape and robs a girl of her future; it forces her to drop out of school and give birth when her body is not ready.
“We can’t do anything unless we have stringent laws, which is what we’re working on,” said Jameela, who collaborates with other NGOs and lawyers to change the minimum age of marriage to 18 instead of “maturation” in Muslim law.
In addition to crashing weddings, Shaheen works with survivors of rape and incest. In India, a woman is raped every 20 minutes and 98 percent of reported rapes name parents, relatives and neighbors as the perpetrators. After a girl's husband cut her nose off when she was 8 months pregnant, neighbors took her to the hospital to deliver the baby. She came to Shaheen to heal and now walks at night with other survivors, door-to-door, talking to families about ways to stop the cycle of violence.
While the women and girls of Shaheen are making progress, we still have a long road ahead. India, which has more child brides than any nation in the world, decided not to co-sponsor a United Nations initiative to end child marriage.