Laxmi Sargara learned as a teen she had been married when she was one year old
She found out a few days before being expected to live with her husband's family
Teenager had marriage annulled after refusing to go with husband's family
Child marriages are common in poorer parts of India
Eighteen-year-old Laxmi Sargara found out she was married when her parents-in-law came to tell her that in a few days time they’d come back to take her to live with them.
It was a few days before Akshaya Tritiya, an auspicious day for child marriages in India, when many parents in the poorest areas of the country promise their children to other families.
Sargara was just one-year-old when she was married to Rakesh, then a three-year-old child from another village in the Jodphur district of Rajasthan.
Now 18, Sargara, was expected to go willingly. Instead, she ran to her brother in Jodphur city for help, and together they went to see Kriti Bharti, a social worker from the Sarathi Trust.
“She said, “I don’t want to go, I want to die first.” She was not in that situation to accept all these things, to accept her in-laws, to accept her husband,” Bharti said. “She was very frightened.”
Within days – on the very day she was due to go and live with her husband and his parents – the couple signed an official document confirming their marriage was annulled.
Sargara is unable to read the document, she is illiterate, but she was “very happy,” Bharti said.
Her former husband Rakesh, who drives earth-movers for a living, took some convincing.
“He told me the marriage had been conducted properly, she’s my wife, I’m going to take her,” Bharti said. “Then I told him that it was not a marriage, that the rituals are done by the parents, not by them, (and) they have not promised to each other all things that were in the ritual. Then he understood that this is not a marriage.”
The marriage wasn’t annulled in the traditional sense of the word, because under Indian law child marriages are not legal.
“It was a social agreement, a document endorsed by witnesses, lawyers from both sides and attested legally,” said Indu Chopra, a program director of the woman and child development department of Rajasthan state.
“It was a middle ground to end this marriage, which is not a legally-valid marriage in the first place, because Laxmi wanted some kind of a certificate that could declare her unmarried and independent,” she said.
Despite her strong stance, and willingness to talk to the local media about her bold move, the teenager is too afraid to return to her village, Bharti said.
She fears the reaction of villagers who live in a community where child marriages are not only accepted, but expected.
“Usually parents feel the pressure of marrying their daughter when she reaches puberty as they fear for her chastity, which if violated, might affect the family honor,” said Caroline den Dulk, of UNICEF India.
The reality is many are married well before puberty, as in Sargara’s case, because of long-held views about the value of girls and women in Indian society.
Girls are expected to become housewives, den Dulk said, so their parents are reluctant to send them to school.
According to provisional results of the 2011 Indian census, women still lag behind men when it comes to literacy; 65% of Indian women are literate compared to 82% of men.
The cost of a girl’s dowry – the amount of money paid by her father to her husband’s family – can also be a significant burden on poorer families, and it traditionally rises with the level of a girl’s education, den Dulk said.
“Therefore families believe it is best to marry them off as soon as possible,” said den Dulk, adding: “The entire community accepts these practices and violating these norms may mean exclusion.”
It has been reported that Sargara’s annulment is the first of its kind in India. UNICEF says there may have been others in places where social workers are trying hard to change attitudes.
“We have seen cases of resistance to child marriage, last minute prevention through counseling and delay of the gauna (when the bride moves to the groom’s household),” den Dulk said.
She said there are signs of change but any process has been incremental; “The average age is gradually increasing but at a very slow pace.”
Bharti said that Sargara is still very frightened and is receiving counseling twice a day.
On Sunday, Bharti plans to take her back to her village so they can confront her extended family and friends together to explain her decision and address any backlash.
“My objective is to rehabilitate her socially, mentally and she can live her life happily ever after,” she said.
CNN’s Harmeet Singh contributed to this report.