When Sanjay Sahani received an offer for his oldest daughter to be married to a young man from another village, it seemed like the gods were smiling on him.

Not only was the boy's family waiving Sanjay's obligation to pay a dowry, it would be one less mouth for him to feed. With a sick wife, five children and a meagre income as an auto rickshaw driver, life is tough for Sanjay. Sending Minu off to live with another family would make a huge difference to the family's life.

Marrying off a girl under 18 is illegal in India, and Minu was 14 at the time. But Sanjay was counting on the fact that he lived in a tiny village outside the city of Muzaffapur in Bihar, a backwater province. Here, things could – and would - be done the old way, without government officials poking their nose into private business. So Sanjay set about making preparations for his oldest daughter's wedding.

Priyanca, 20, left, Minu, 17, and Gayatri, 50, who helped her. Photo / Mike Scott
Priyanca, 20, left, Minu, 17, and Gayatri, 50, who helped her. Photo / Mike Scott

However, he had not reckoned on the growing awareness among the village women of the dangers of child marriage. When Minu, who is now 17, confided to her friend Priyanca that her parents were going to marry her off against her wishes, Priyanca resolved to help her. Together with Gayatri, the elected ward representative of the village, she visited Minu's parents to argue against the wedding.

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Gayatri has only recently come to see child marriage as a social evil. At 50, child marriage has been an integral part of her life in the village. When she was growing up, Gayatri told us, if a girl wasn't married by 20 it was assumed there was something wrong with her or her family. The whole village asked questions about the morality of the girl or the family's financial situation.

Parents are afraid that it will bring a bad name to the family. So girls are married off early at 12-14. It was only recently, Gayatri said, that she and the other village women were educated about the evils and health hazards of child marriage and since then they have been trying to stop the practice.

That education came from the Child Protection Unit, a World Vision collaboration with the governmental Child Welfare Committee. The teams work within villages and communities educating the men and women on the importance of education for girls and boys and the need to protect young women from being married off too young.

Minu was set to become a child bride at her parents insistence. Photo / Mike Scott
Minu was set to become a child bride at her parents insistence. Photo / Mike Scott

Infant and maternal mortality are high among teenage brides, and domestic violence is also more common towards girls who have married young. India has the highest rate of domestic violence against girls who were married before 18. They are less likely to be educated and therefore are more dependent on their husbands for survival.

Using the information they'd learned at the World Vision training, Priyanca and Gayatri argued the case against marrying Minu off. Her parents weren't receptive.

"We are getting a wedding free from a good family," Sanjay cried. "Will you give us the money for a wedding later?"

Eventually, however, Sanjay promised he would call off the wedding.

He lied. Instead, he and some family members escorted Minu forcefully to a Hindu temple where the groom and his family had gathered to celebrate the marriage.

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The village being as small as it is, word got round quickly that Minu had been taken off to be married and the women of the Child Protection Unit sprang into action. They rang the local police and in scenes reminiscent of a Bollywood movie, the police arrived in the middle of the ceremony and stopped the wedding. The police escorted both the young people home separately and kept guard throughout the night to ensure no harm came to any of the parties involved.

Sanjay Sahani, Minu's father, is a rickshaw driver. He needs to earn 10,000 rupees a month ($NZ211) to feed his family of four children but often fails. Photo / Mike Scott
Sanjay Sahani, Minu's father, is a rickshaw driver. He needs to earn 10,000 rupees a month ($NZ211) to feed his family of four children but often fails. Photo / Mike Scott

Priyanka and Gayatri are proud of their growing social awareness and their success in preventing a reluctant child bride from being forced into a marriage she didn't want. Minu is at home and she has not been forcibly married off to a stranger.

But the financial struggle for Sanjay to keep his family's head above water is tough – and getting tougher. Minu's at home but her 10-year-old sister has had to go off to a government school where she will be fed and educated because her parents can't afford to do so.

Looking at the way Sanjay interacts with his baby daughter, it's hard to believe this is the same man who beat his 14-year-old for refusing to marry a stranger. He's gentle with the baby, making her smile and in turn, getting enormous pleasure out of her gummy kisses and grins.

I suppose, right now, the baby isn't a financial strain on him and he can afford to enjoy his children. Once they become teenagers, they're a lot more expensive to feed and maintain.

He and his wife go and see their 10-year-old every eight to 10 days.
The time away from his auto rickshaw is costly for Sanjay but it's worth it for him to see his daughter. He's retained one daughter but lost another.

The stress of trying to provide for his family is etched into his face. Unlike Bollywood movies, there really isn't a happy ending here.

CHILD EXPLOITATION

• 152 million children in child labour around the world
• 1.2 million children trafficked each year worldwide
• 6 per cent of women marriged before age 15
• 15 million girls married before age 18 each year
• India alone has more than 10 million children in work
• 27 per cent of girls in India are married before their 18th birthday - despite the legal marriage age of 18

To donate to the Not for Sale campaign go to World Vision