Sunita* was forced to drop out of school when she was 10. Just like many of the girls in her village. Secondary school is a three kilometre walk away and parents say it’s unsafe for their daughters to go.
“Even though I fought my parents to stay in school, I wasn’t allowed,” explains Sunita. “At social gatherings with other villages I used to feel ashamed, the other girls who had carried on their education would laugh at us and call us drop outs.”
Soon after she left school, Sunita’s family arranged for her to be married. The plan was to wait until she was 14. Unsure what to do, Sunita called on her friend, 16-year-old Asha* for help.
When Asha was 15, she found out her marriage was already planned and had been since she was three years old. She was scared and angry. Scared for her future and angry that it had been decided without her consent.
Photo: Jamie Baker/Save the Children
Asha’s marriage had been planned when she was three years old.
“I was so scared about getting married and felt really helpless,” Asha told us . “I would have had to drop out of school and leave my friends and family. I said to my family, ‘I have never made a fuss before, I am a good girl, I just want to continue my education and choose my own life’.”
Asha joined a local children’s group supported by Save the Children. Through the group she gained a clearer understanding of her rights and how getting married too young might impact her life. She couldn’t allow it to happen. Over time she was able to persuade her father to talk with other family members and eventually the marriage was cancelled.
Touching hearts, changing minds
Empowered by this experience, and with the help of her Dad, Asha spoke with Sunita’s family about what she had learned. After many months and many heated family debates, Sunita’s Dad decided he too would stop his daughter from being married so young.
Sunita and Asha live in a small village in the heart of Rajasthan where 65% of girls under 18 are forced to marry – one of the highest rates in India.
“My grandma didn’t speak to me or my father for two years as she felt we brought shame on the family,” explains Sunita. “I’m proud of my father for standing up to the pressure and I think he is proud of me too.”
Sunita was allowed to return to school. She studies hard and is active within her community with the goal of one day working for a charity. Her advocacy work, and her work helping other girls in local villages has been recognised with a nomination for the Young Person’s World Peace Prize.
“I want to fight for a world in which girls have power over their own decisions. Where girls are the same as boys, and parents don’t have society pressurising them to marry their daughters. Every girl should be allowed to decide her future."
Sunita’s father had to balk tradition to have his daughter’s marriage stopped. Photo: Jamie Baker/ Save the Children
Freeing young girls from a vicious cycle
Empowering young people through education helps bolster their fight against gender inequality and exploitation. And when children are offered the opportunities they deserve, it leads to better futures for both them and the wider community.
Child marriage is robbing millions of girls of their childhood – forcing them out of school and into a life of limited opportunity. An estimated one in three girls living in developing countries are married before they’re 18-years-old. And one in nine before they’re 15.
Save the Children is working with governments, community groups and families in areas where early marriage is common practice. Our programs aim to engage and educate parents about their children’s rights, emphasise the value of education and provide guidance and support when young girls and boys have been forced to marry too young.
It’s a complex and contentious issue. One that presents different challenges in many different parts of the world. But stories like Sunita’s and Asha’s help provide hope that one day all women will be free to marry when and whom they choose.
Header image: Sunita was nominated for the Young Person’s World Peace Prize. Photo: Jamie Baker/Save the Children
* Name changed to protect her identity.