It takes forever for Prabha to tell me her story.

A shy 19 year old, who looks much younger, she was married off at 16. Under Indian law, the minimum age for marriage is 18 years for girls and 21 for boys but in the country, out in the less developed communities, they still do things the old way.

Prabha* is from a small farming village on the outskirts of Muzaffarpur in the country's north-east, near the border with Nepal. She was one of the young women the World Vision liaison team suggested we talk to about the realities of child marriage. But for a long time, she stays silent. When my translated questions are put to her, she looks at me, looks to the ground and twists her head away.

I worry that she has been pressured into talking to us, but when I tell her she doesn't have to talk to me, she assures me that she wants to tell her story – she just doesn't want to do so in front of the whole village. I look behind me and sure enough, the presence of a television camera and a crew of strangers has brought most of the village – men, women and children – crowding around the edges of Prabha's family compound. Once they are politely ushered away, she opens up.

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When her husband's family approached her parents with a marriage proposal, Prabha's dad told her that her three younger siblings needed help, that the family was struggling and if she married this man, she could get money from him and things would be much better at home. Prabha didn't want to get married to a stranger. She wanted to continue her studies at school but she understood that she had a responsibility to look after the family.

Kerre McIvor in Agra, India. Photo / Mike Scott
Kerre McIvor in Agra, India. Photo / Mike Scott

''My father drinks a lot and his health is very poor. My grandparents, my mother – we all look after him. We try to keep money from him because he spends it on alcohol. If I don't support my family, they won't have enough money to live.''

As is customary, Prabha didn't see her husband before she was married. Even now, she has no idea how old he is. He works in a city hundreds of kilometres from her village and she sees him twice a year. But every week without fail, he sends Prabha and her family 5000 of the 9000 rupees he earns working in a factory. Without the money from her husband, Prabha doubts her family could survive.

She enjoyed her wedding day. Like any young girl, she loved being a princess and dressing up in a beautiful sari that her mother bought her. She shows me a photo of herself and her new husband on their wedding day and she looks gorgeous.

Her husband looks a good 10 years older than Prabha but he looks kind. I asked Prabha what she thought when she saw him for the first time and she giggles and blushes and wriggles on her seat.

Prabha, 19, was married at 16 in an arranged union. The legal age for marriage in India is 18. Photo / Mike Scott
Prabha, 19, was married at 16 in an arranged union. The legal age for marriage in India is 18. Photo / Mike Scott

Did you think "Oh no!", I ask, or did you think "Thank goodness!"

Prabha concedes that she thought he looked good and she says he is a very good husband. But she is adamant that her two younger sisters will not be married off by her father.

"No, I won't let them get married young. I can stop that. I will explain to my parents that they shouldn't marry them off so young. Girls should study. They should study and become doctors and not get married til about 20.''

Talking to Prabha's dad later, I doubt very much whether she will be able to stop him marrying off his daughters as soon as he can find men who'll take them, no matter how young they are. He tells me that when he had daughters, his only wish for them was to marry them off and send them to live at their in-law's places. I asked him if he considered girls to be a burden and he grunted in agreement.

''I had four daughters and I wanted a son, so we kept having children until we had one and now he is big.''

His son is studying and his father hopes he will one day get a good government job. I ask him how old his wife was when he married her, and he tells me she was twenty. Wasn't 16 a bit young for Prabha, then?

''No. When she married it was a burden off my head. I hardly earn anything to look after her.''

I ask him about his other daughters, and their fate seems pre-destined.

"I have another daughter of fifteen who is coming to the age of marriage. I have loans, and I have little money. If I get together enough to pay for the dowry, I will just get them married off so I don't have to keep paying for them. I don't want to keep them at home, because I have to pay and pay."

I point out to Prabha that her husband is a good one, and she seems fond of him – or as fond as you can be of a man you only see twice a year. She wants to leave her father's house one day and set up her own home with her husband. Perhaps her sisters will be better off getting married than hanging around the village, taking care of their father.

''No,'' Prabha says. ''Not everyone gets a good husband.''

She's quite right. And not everyone ends up with a good father, either.

*Not her real name

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