A teenage Indian computer geek and a middle-aged daughter of a Swiss baron teamed up to tackle the issue of child brides.
While on vacation in India in 1993, Jacqueline de Chollet was shocked to witness the subordination of women and the dismal prospects of young Indian girls, in particular. As she commented to NPR, “There were people talking everywhere at conferences about women’s rights, but who, actually, was going to do anything?”
Then she decided, “I am.”
Enter Mahendra Sharma, the high school computer geek she hired to set up her nonprofit computer system, and The Veerni Institute is born. Now a thriving hostel for 75 girls in the city of Jodhpur, it pays for their private middle and high school education. Its annual budget of just over $150,000 is raised from family foundations and individuals in Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the U.S.
Illicit and secret child marriages.
Child marriage has been illegal for decades in India. As one anonymous 16-year-old told NPR, people in her village simply ignore the law.
“Our parents just hold the weddings in secret,” she says. “At night—very rushed.” She was married at age nine.
Another young bride notes how she didn’t understand what was happening at the time. Later, when she realized she’d been married, she told NPR, “I was so sad, because I had really wanted to study.”
And when child brides hit puberty, they’re sent to live with their husbands to basically become servants to their in-laws.
According to the International Center for Research on Women:
>>One third of the world’s girls are married before the age of 18.
>>One in nine are married before the age of 15.
>>If present trends continue, 142 million girls will be married before their 18th birthday over the next decade. That’s an average of 14.2 million girls each year.
>>Girls living in poor households are almost twice as likely to marry before 18 than girls in higher income households.
>>Girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s.
>>Pregnancy is the leading cause of death worldwide for girls ages 15 to 19.
>>Child brides face a higher risk of contracting HIV because they often marry an older man with more sexual experience.
>>Girls aged between 15 and19 are two to six times more likely to contract HIV than boys of the same age in sub-Saharan Africa.
Hope, Health, and Happiness.
Organizations like the Veerni Institute, while not eradicating the illicit practice of child marriages, are going a long way to ensuring brighter and more formidable futures for their young graduates. These young women return home—or go on to college—with a renewed sense of their innate dignity and distinctive voice in Indian society.
They are no longer the hidden, silent, and subordinate slaves they once were in the backwaters of India’s caste-defined society.
And long may they thrive as beacons of hope to the repressed child brides in many other parts of the world.
Author: Gerard A. Murphy
Editor: Travis May