The woman risking it all to help child brides annul their marriages

Urmila Dash is one of the few campaigners in India ready to risk arrest to help under-aged girls stop their marriages The woman risking it all to help child brides annul their marriages There…

The woman risking it all to help child brides annul their marriages

Urmila Dash is one of the few campaigners in India ready to risk arrest to help under-aged girls stop their marriages

The woman risking it all to help child brides annul their marriages

There is nothing remotely sexy about the clothes she wears and the projects she helps set up – yet for Urmila Dash, for more than 20 years, stopping child marriages has been her life’s work.

Tucked in an Indian fort, their six-week campaign to stop the under-age marriage of Dalit girls against the backdrop of a backdrop of encroaching Hindu temples and rival community chieftains’ houses in south-eastern Haryana state, and you get the sense that this is no job women traditionally wanted.

We strongly believe in the right of the children to marriage. We have the right to go and annul their wedding, to say no to marriage as part of their right to life

Dash heads a campaign called the Organisation for the Annulment of Child Marriages, an organisation set up in 1995 and dedicated to helping change the legal framework to stop under-age marriages. In 1994, she and her fellow activist Ajit Aal also started Action Against Child Marriage. The organisations that they founded are now disbanded, so the work remains in the hands of Dash and others.

They have already helped convince more than 80 courts across Haryana to overturn 2,000 marriages this year and their efforts have reached across India.

“When I got to know that young girls are under threat because of marriage at the young age, I felt it was urgent to do something,” says Dash. “It is our turn now as women to stand up and speak out and stop this happening. We strongly believe in the right of the children to marriage. We have the right to go and annul their wedding, to say no to marriage as part of their right to life.”

Indulging the desire to marry for many young Indian men, the issue of underage marriage is a shameful one in India. Current laws – which guarantee marriage for girls aged 15 and above but do not have any provisions for marrying boys – need to be changed, Dash says. “When these marriages take place at such an early age, it is like handing your girls over to a fast food company.”

Such girls as 8 and 10 often marry with their family’s consent and the court proceedings take place “just down the road”, she says.

At worst, a girl dies before the decree comes through and as she cannot take her husband’s family to court, she must just simply stay silent and give into her husband’s demands for her to stay with him for the rest of her life.

It is not a solution for all of the 1,000 girls married under the age of 16 each year in Haryana, Dash says.

But at least there is a chance for many of the girls to recover after they are married and continue their studies, and the age of consent for marriage must be raised to 21 years, she says. It is not just girls the campaigners want to help – Dash is hopeful they will be able to stop the marriage of boys as well.

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