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Turning the tide? Married as children, sisters fight, win legal battle with NGO support

By Shailendra Pandya*  
The District Legal Service Authority (DLSA), Udaipur, has awarded Rs 1.25 lakh compensation each to two minor sisters who were married as 12 and 14 year olds. This compensation comes as a huge relief to the two sisters who, while struggling to free themselves from their child marriages, also became orphans and had no one to turn to. In September 2023, they had approached court to nullify their marriages.
When Radha and Meena (names changed) were handed over the legal order granting them the compensation in April 2024, their emotions were a tumultuous mix of relief, sorrow and disbelief. Both under 15, these two sisters from Udaipur have walked a journey and lived a life marred with insurmountable grief and loss. 
Significantly, the order comes close to Akshaya Tritiya which falls on 10 May this year. Every year on Akshaya Tritiya, thousands of children are pushed into marriage in Rajasthan alone.
Here is a peek at the arduous journey of the two young girls and how, in an inspiring tale of solidarity, NGOs, government authorities and the state’s legal system ensured justice for them when they were alone, battered and helpless a year ago.
Both Radha and Meena were very young when their father, the only breadwinner in the family, passed away. The death wasn’t just an emotional loss but a crude push into abject poverty for the entire family. What paralyzed the family more than the absence of the father was the absence of resources.
Like many such families who think marrying off their young children is a sure way out of poverty for them, the mother decided to marry off her two daughters. The fact that both Radha and Meena were merely 12 and 14 years old wasn’t enough to change her decision either.
So the two sisters were married off at an age when they should have been giggling carefree on swings, playing dolls with friends, and learning about life and lessons in schools. They were instead pushed into marriage.
They wanted to escape the marriages and one day, they finally managed to flee from their husbands’ homes and came back to their mother. They thought this one step would make their lives better. But the husband of one of the sisters was irate that his “wife” went back to her mother. So in a shocking turn of events, he killed their mother.
Devastated by this, the two sisters had no one to turn to and were left in a lurch. They were grieving and frightened but they were angry too. But with no one or no place to turn to, they didn’t know what to do.
Fortunately, the incident came to the notice of the Child Welfare Committee, which then reached out to the Udaipur-based NGO, Gayatri Seva Sansthan (GSS). GSS which is also one of the 161 coalition partner NGOs of the Child Marriage Free India campaign has been working against child marriage in Udaipur. 
The Child Marriage Free India campaign is working in over 300 districts across the country where the prevalence of child marriage is high. They aim to uproot this social crime from every nook and corner of India by 2030.
Child Marriage Free India campaign is working in over 300 districts across the country where the prevalence of child marriage is high
When GSS got a whiff of the case, it decided to spring into action and rescue the girls immediately. The aim was clear – the girls had to be rehabilitated and they should get justice.
“When we met the girls, they were going through tremendous grief. There was no one to call their own and our priority was to ensure their mental health,” said Shailendra Pandya, GSS, Udaipur.
Left with no place to call home, the first step was to provide a safe shelter, which came in the form of Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidhyalaya. The two girls were grief-struck but they were not ready to let go of their abusers. 
To nullify their marriages, their case was presented before the court in September last year. The girls were also admitted to schools and they continue to complete their education.
Finally, they won the legal battle and in April this year, DLSA, Udaipur, directed that both the survivors be given a compensation of Rs 1.25 lakh each.
Speaking about this huge victory for the girls, Ravi Kant, Convenor, Child Marriage Free India campaign, said: 
“While the acceptance of child marriage in our society is embedded, it cannot withstand the prowess of our coalition. All the 161 NGO partners of the child marriage free India campaign are fighting this social crime with unprecedented energy and unity. This compensation is a huge victory for the victims and we would like to appreciate the DLSA for this order. Child marriage victims often live a life of trauma and scarcity but such orders ensure that the children who were pushed into marriage get justice, compensation, rehabilitation and everything we snatched from them in the first place. But the fight doesn’t end here. We have to ensure that these girls also get attached with all the government schemes and get the benefits and aids that is rightfully theirs.”
Notably, as per the National Family Health Survey V (2019-21), the percentage of women aged 20-24 married before the age of 18 years in Rajasthan is 25.4 per cent as against the national average of 23.3 percent. 
This number, however, soars and many more young girls and boys are married in the state around Akshaya Tritiya every year. With this threat well known, NGOs with the support and aid of government authorities have been on a strict vigil this year ensuring that no child is thrown into a life like Radha and Meena.
---
*With Bachpan Bachao Andolan 

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