“School Chale Hum” is scribbled on the outer walls of every house in Badbeli village of Rajgarh district in Madhya Pradesh, but Sheela Soundhiya’s hopes of continuing her education were dashed when she was taken off school in Class IV. Last year, she was married off and now she will be sent to her husband’s home though she is just about 15 or 16 years old.

“I want to study but no one is listening to me,” she says.

Ram Dayal of the same village is in Class IX but he has been married for three years. Shiv Singh Dangi got married when he was 12 years old to Manju who was just ten at that time. There are many other children who are yet to attain adulthood but have been forced into wedlock.

Despite campaigns by voluntary organisations and claims by the State government that plans have been put in place to prevent child marriages, marriages of at least six children aged between 14 to 16 years were fixed in this village on Akshay Tritya this month. Although the village’s anganwadi worker Megha Kumari is quite active and has been approaching the families to cancel these marriages, she says, “There has to be a consistent support system; otherwise it is difficult for an individual to bring the change in the mindset of the villagers who are unwilling to break away from age-old traditions.”

At Son Kachh village in the same district, a number of underage boys and girls tied the knot at a mass marriage during the last week of April. Though the organisers claimed that all the couples had attained the legal age for marriage, it was not difficult to find out that at least some of them were not adults. One of the villagers attending the mass marriage admitted that many of the boys are school students but added that one cannot accept that things will change in a day. He said that 90 per cent of the marriages are fixed when boys and girls are toddlers or five to six years old.

In Khilichipur village, too, child marriages take place every year. “We are no longer marrying the toddlers as was the case earlier because of the law; now we marry them at the age of 13-14 years,” says a woman who had come to an annual fair held near the village.

When told that the legal age for marriage of girls is 18 years and for boys is 21 years, they looked with disbelief. “But they are old enough to marry!” exclaims the middle-aged woman.

The Rajgarh district is notorious for child marriages. The Annual Health Survey (2010-11) released last year revealed that 25.9 per cent of males in villages, of which 36.8 per cent is from Rajgarh district, got married before attaining the legal age for marriage. Also, 17.2 per cent girls in the rural areas, of which 30.4 per cent is from Rajgarh, tied the knot before they were 18 years old.

Most child marriages take place within the communities of the Lodhas, Dangis and Sondhiyas.

But all is not lost. There are villages like Peeplabe in Rajgarh where no child marriage has taken place for the last 20 to 25 years, claim the villagers. Even in Badbeli, there are young boys who are resisting the pressure to marry early. Twenty-one-year-old Balu Singh Dangi, who is preparing for his M.Sc says, “I will not marry till I am economically independent.” Even his parents are not forcing him despite pressure from the society.

Another boy Nek Ram Dangi, studying in Class VI, also says that he will not marry before he is 21.

Bhawna, studying in Class VIII from Khilichipur village, says that she wants to become a doctor and will not marry early. But the question is whether her parents will support her. However, that what is important is that many boys and girls in their teens have started questioning the tradition of child marriages.

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