KOLKATA, India (Reuters Life!) - Fourteen-year-old Ahalya Kumar lives on a single daily meal of starched rice and has never been to the movies, but the girl from a dirt-poor Indian village packed enough power to reject her arranged marriage in June.
One of four children in a family that earns a pittance rolling bidis, or cheap handrolled Indian cigarettes, her elder sister was married off young and forced to bear children before she turned 18, the legal Indian marrying age.
But when it was Ahalya’s turn, she said “no” after hearing about a 13-year-old girl from the same area who had shot to national fame by stopping her marriage.
“I want to be educated first and live healthy. Marriage can wait until I am 19,” she said.
In Oldih village of Purulia, one of the poorest areas in the eastern state of West Bengal, about 300 km (190 miles) from the bright lights of the state capital Kolkata, Ahalya had to fight poverty and parental pressure to stand up for herself.
But times are slowly changing. The government supported by aid agencies is setting up schools for child laborers to make them aware of their rights to break a rife but outlawed custom.
“Girls are gradually saying ‘no’ to child marriage,” said Anil Gulati, a spokesman for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which works with authorities to fight child marriage.
Gulati said girls have become bolder by encouraging each other and getting media publicity for their refusal.
“This has a slowly growing momentum which will take some time, but it will have a lot of value.”
Impoverished families often use early marriage to get rid of the financial burden of a daughter, and the law can be slow to react. Ahalya’s father, Nimai, repented his decision.
“I was making a mistake. I now want my daughter to study further and then get married when she attains the right age.”
Ahalya’s inspiration was a girl called Rekha Kalindi. Though Kalindi still lives in a mud hut in Purulia, she became a celebrity when she resisted early wedlock and was congratulated on her courage by India’s president.
“The president was very happy to know that these girls are revolting and she encouraged them a lot,” said Prosenjit Kundu, a government official working with girls in Purulia who accompanied them to the meeting in India’s capital.
“She said these girls are messengers of change.”
Kalindi chose not to be one of the many child brides in India’s 1.1 billion-plus population destined for early wedlock.
Though the numbers are falling, India’s latest nationwide health survey said nearly half of women aged 20-24 years were married before they turned 18 and more than a fifth wed before they turned 16. Some 3 percent married before they turned 13.
Parents sometimes use force to make their girls marry, and early motherhood can also prove fatal.
“In some cases, when the girls revolted the parents stopped giving food to the girls,” Kundu said. “These girls don’t have enough to eat and are all child laborers. But their strength to resist child marriage amazes us.”
Child brides often do not use contraceptives, and face high fertility rates, unwanted pregnancies and abortions.
Some join the roughly 78,000 Indian mothers who, according to a 2009 UNICEF report, die every year in childbirth and from pregnancy complications.
The high mortality rate, which lags far behind India’s Millenium Development Goals and rival China, is another sign of how often rural women have been excluded from a recent economic boom that lifted millions of others out of poverty.
One state where child marriage is widespread and socially acceptable is Rajasthan, whose desert safaris and ornate palaces make it a magnet for foreign tourists.
But village women workers have long fought against the practice, braving violent resistance and even rape to do so.
“Only recently the child marriage of a girl called Babloo was stopped in Jodhpur region by these village social workers after her parents were convinced,” said Anuradha Maharishi, a UNICEF official working in the state.
Babloo could signal a gradual trend, as across India early marriages are slowly in decline. The same government survey said 44.5 percent of women aged 20-24 married before the legal age in 2005-6, down from 54.2 percent in 1992-93.
“I think there’ll be a positive reaction,” Kundu said about Indian society’s view of girls fighting back.
“If the girls in other districts know girls from their age and their poor backgrounds are saying ‘no’ to marriage, they will also come out and speak their minds.”
Additional reporting by Matthias Williams and Jayanta Shaw; Editing by Matthias Williams and Sugita Katyal