At an age when most kids are learning to walk, Laxmi Sargara was already married. Her husband, Rakesh, was just three-years-old when family sealed the deal on their fate. She was one.
Now seventeen years later the couple have set a history-making precedent by having their marriage annulled. But the real hero of this story is Laxmi, now 18, who took remarkably brave steps to reverse the archaic tradition and opened the door for more child brides to follow.
Though technically illegal in India, poor families living in rural areas often rely on these types of partnerships, using kids as pawns in order to provide more financial stability to those who can't afford to feed their children long-term. The fall-out is hardest felt for child brides, plucked from their parents' homes in their teens and forced to live with the husband they wed as a toddler and his family. The girls are expected to play the role of obedient wife and daughter-in-law, and in some instances, are beaten into submission by members of their new family.
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Just days ago, Laxmi's was informed of her own marriage obligations, promised almost two decades before by her Rajasthani elders, and given a move-in deadline of April 24 from her in-laws.
She reached to a social worker in Jodhpur who advocates for children's rights through an organization called the Sarathi Trust. The social worker contacted the groom, who was prepared to go through with family arrangement. After some persuading, he finally changed his mind and agreed to an annulment, influenced by the fact that he'd be marrying a woman risking everything to live without him.
"It is the first example we know of a couple wed in childhood wanting the marriage to be annulled, and we hope that others take inspiration from it," Kriti Bharti, the social worker who orchestrated the annulment, told AFP.
A joint legal document signed by both Rakesh and Laxmi made it official
and provided a road map for other young brides to do the same.
"Now I am mentally relaxed and my family members are also with me," said Laxmi, who beamed as she held up the document for photographers. She plans to continue her education in hopes of landing a job so she can maintain her independence. But Laxmi's newfound freedom comes with risk.
Child marriages are a worldwide phenomenon, particularly in rural areas with high poverty rates and closely-guarded ancient traditions. In parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, The Middle East and even the U.S. underage children are forced into marriages at the behest of their families. In recent years, American officials have cracked down on fundamentalist polygamist sects in Utah and Texas known to pair adult grooms with child brides. Other countries provide less legal clout needed to protect young girls. In Yemen where, there is no punishment for families who marry off an underage daughter, about half the country's brides are under 15. In Saudi Arabia, there is no minimum age for marriage at all. An 8-year old girl found this out in 2009, when the Saudi courts denied her annulment request. At the time, her husband was 58.