“I was not going to sit back and have my life taken away from me.”
Santadevi Meghwal has finally gained back her life after having annulled her marriage of 18 years.
Her marriage began when she was just 11 months old to Saanval Ram, who was also a child of nine years old.
But the 19-year-old from Jodhpur, Rajasthan, discovered she was married only two years ago, and has been fighting for her freedom ever since.
Finally, she has won this battle in a family court and officially annulled her marriage to Ram.
Having no recollection of this marriage as a toddler, she was only informed of the truth when the village elders told her father she was required to move in with her in-laws.
Meghwal says: “At first I couldn’t digest the fact but it was the truth, and my parents told me to accept it as my fate.”
His family wanted to abandon her education and subject her to the life of a housewife to her new husband, but that was not the life Meghwal had planned for herself.
She says: “My in-laws told me that I would have to stop studying when I went to live with them. I don’t want to be a housewife.”
So, Meghwal made the brave decision in May 2015 to approach a family court to have this marriage annulled.
However, as soon as her in-laws heard of this development, they reported Meghwal to the local Kangaroo court (Panchayat) – a local self-government organisation.
The Panchayat ostracised her family from the community, and fined her 1.6 million rupees (£16,000) for attempting to go against this tradition.
Yet, this did not stop Meghwal: “I was not going to sit back and have my life taken away from me.”
Meghwal tried to refuse to live with her in-laws and started looking for more help, saying: “I was threatened and told I would be forcibly taken. That’s when I approached Saarthi Trust.”
Saarthi Trust is an organisation aiming to protect victims of child marriage and prevent it from happening.
Founder Kriti Bharti explains the process of annulment is a lengthy one if there is not mutual consent, saying:
“If done with mutual consent, the annulment may take place within three days. Otherwise, things may take their own course.
“An annulment application of a 15-year-old girl married to a 55-year-old man is pending for the past 18 months.”
Including Meghwal’s case, the organisation has now helped annul over 27 child marriages in India.
Kriti says: “I am over the moon Santadevi has won her freedom.
“It is my dream to eradicate child marriage from India forever, and this is just another girl’s life I have helped to save.”
Kriti has recently won a scholarship for her work on fighting against the child marriage laws with the Trust Women Conference. With the awareness and help from this scholarship, more child brides’ lives can be saved.
Now Meghwal has regained control of her life, and her ambitions to become a teacher have never been more prominent.
She says: “I did not believe in this marriage and I was determined to fight for my freedom and break free.
“I was not going to give up. This is a wonderful day for me.
“After completing my studies I want to become a teacher and this decision will certainly help me to achieve my dream.”
Despite being illegal, child marriages are commonly known in India, where millions of children are married off before they are able to consent.
The 2014 figures released by UNICEF indicate 47 per cent of women in India are married before they have reached 18 years old.
Their ‘Ending Child Marriage’ report also states that ‘India alone accounts for one third of the global total’ of 700 million.
Hopefully, with the help of organisations such as Saarthi Trust, this deeply embedded tradition will eventually become annulled itself.