According to the United Nations, more than a third of the world’s child brides are from India.
By law women can’t wed before they are 18, but many are married before then.
And while child marriages have long be banned across the country, the centuries old tradition still continues in many states, including the western state of Rajasthan.
Asia Calling’s Jasvinder Sehgal traveled to one school, a safe house for child brides, to find out more.
It’s early afternoon at the Veerni Institute in the city of Jodhpur, in Rajasthan.
The institute is a non-profit boarding school, offering girls from distant villages an education.
But it’s break time now and the girls are gathering for lunch.
Before they eat, the girls chant prayers, sending thanks for their blessings.
“Today the menu is beans, rice, potato curry, a desert and salad. It is good and will give me energy for the day.”
That’s 15-year-old student Dhapu, one the girls that attends the school.
When lunch is over, I get the chance to hear more about her story.
“I am from a nearby village. I study in eleventh grade in the arts faculty and live here at the institute,” says Dhapu, “I got married when I was very young. I think it was year 2009. Today, I am 15 years old. I don’t remember much about my marriage but I know that my husband doesn’t do anything.”
Dhapu is among the seventy other girls who live here at the boarding school, where almost half of the students are child brides.
At the school they attend classes and also receive daily meals, uniforms, books, and computer training.
Mahendra Sharma, director of the Veerni Institute, says the school gives child brides a unique chance to study without the interruptions of family life and the pressures of marriage.
And sometimes that can have a huge impact on their lives.
“Before it was very difficult to bring the child brides to the institute. Their parents thought that modern education would spoil them and make them arrogant,” explains Mahendra, “But we brought them in on the condition the girls will reside here until grade 12. We have had child brides here that are only 5 or six years old.”
Mahendra says the condition helps to delay child marriages.
“Then the girls are self-reliant, which is a turning point for their parents, who can now see the value of educating their daughters,” he continues, “And when they see that many of them are ready to cancel the marriages of their daughters.”
And there is a big demand for places at the school.
Last year the school had four vacant spots and they received more than 200 applications. Fifty of those were from child brides.
The institute has been running for 12 years now. And has educated hundreds of child brides, says Mahendra.
“Twenty child brides completed their education here last year,” he says, “Ten child brides are getting higher education in college, and out of them 5 are pursuing professional courses in nursing.”
Despite government efforts, the number of child marriages in India is yet to fall. Poverty and lack of awareness are cited as the main reasons why the tradition has persisted.
Vimlesh Sharma has worked as a health inspector at the Veerni School for the last decade.
She helps to identify the child brides to bring them to the institute.
“The only solution to this problem is education,” she says, “This is why we go to distant villages to educate the parents of child brides. We don’t criticize them but only ask them to get their daughters educated before finally sending them to their husbands.”
Dhapu, a child bride herself, is committed to ending the practice.
She has high hopes for her future.
“I want to join the police. This has been my dream since I was a child. I want to help the young girls. I will never allow a child marriage to go ahead,” she says, “Child marriage is a crime and nobody should be allowed to do it. A child doesn’t understand the meaning of marriage.”
If present trends continue, 150 million girls will be married before their 18th birthday over the next decade.
That’s an average 15 million girls each year.