Nearly half of all Indian females get married before turning the legal minimum age of 18. The requirement has been in place for more than three decades, but centuries of custom don't change overnight – and that's especially true in Bararola, a land carved up into small farm plots and crisscrossed by dirt paths that takes at least a day's journey to reach from Calcutta. But even here, some people are taking a stand.
Many locals eke out a living making beedis, a leaf-wrapped Indian cigarette. Rekha was rolling beedis with her parents inside their mud-hut home when they broached her nuptials.
"I was very angry," says Rekha. "I told my father very clearly that this is my age of studying in school, and I didn't want to marry."
With the help of friends, teachers, and administrators, Rekha accomplished what the law alone has not. No child marriages have taken place in the surrounding villages where she and two other girls refused to marry last summer, and similar approaches are meeting some success in other regions.
"We have a strong law and we need to find the people who can advocate for [it]," says Sunayana Walia, a senior researcher at the Delhi office of the International Center for Research on Women. "All the [successful] interventions are tapping the girls ... so they are able to campaign on this issue, along with community participation."
Determined not to follow her sister's path
South Asia has the world's highest levels of child marriage. A paper published in the Lancet,a British medical journal, in March found that 44.5 percent of Indian women who recently reached 20 to 24 years of age had been married by the time they were 18. Of these, 22.6 percent were wed before age 16 – and 2.6 percent before 13.
Child brides face greater health risks and their babies tend to be sicker, weaker, and less likely to survive childhood, according to UNICEF. The child-welfare agency also cites research from Harvard University that found that even a one-year postponement of marriage increases these girls' schooling level by a third of a year, and their literacy by 5 percent to 10 percent.
Rekha learned about the dangers of child marriage firsthand when her older sister got married at age 11. She is now illiterate, and lost all four of her children within one year of birth.
"I had a talk with my sister," Rekha says. "She said, 'You have seen me, I've lost my children.... It's good you stood against child marriage.' "
Rekha had other motivations as well. Like many children here, she had to leave school to work for her family. But she was granted a rare second chance to improve her education through a goverment program called the National Child Labour Project, which, in her district of Purulia, offers remedial education to 4,500 children. Rekha says she did not want to stop school again on account of marriage.
"They love to come to school," says Prosenjit Kundu, the district project director. "These schools are the only place where they are treated as children. Otherwise, they are workers."
Yet they aren't entirely sheltered from the adult world. Five children from each school are bused to extra lessons in the nearby city through the Child Activist Initiative, which is partly funded and supported by UNICEF. The kids, including Rekha, are given leadership training and informed of their rights on a range of issues from forced labor to the legal age for marriage. The girls think up solutions and teach others back in the village.
The Purulia program is new, but has already helped Rekha and two other girls refuse to marry under age – saving, by example, many of their friends from the same situation. Similar child rights programs backed by UNICEF operate across India and involve more than 60,000 children in Bangladesh. The programs are also credited with recently helping another girl in Nepal refuse early marriage.
Even the president is listening
In Rekha's case, her parents initially did not listen to her. But she soon went to friends and teachers. They all came to talk with Rekha's parents, including Mr. Kundu, the government official. That collective support for her and work with her parents was crucial, says Kundu.
"Children are not taken seriously in families," he says. "A girl of 11.5 years who takes a decision for her own against the family members' will – this is an enormous, courageous act."
During a visit from two foreign journalists, the barefoot Rehka, dressed in bright purple and yellow, fielded questions confidently, despite the crowd the interview attracted. In February, she addressed a gathering of 6,000 beedi workers, asking them to allow their children to stay in school and delay marriage. Her best friend, Budhamani Kalindi, says she hasn't gotten any pressure to marry now that Rekha has become such a role model.
"It's terrific how you get that ripple effect of one being brave, sticking her neck out ... and then others following," says Sarah Crowe, a spokeswoman for UNICEF in Delhi.
Those ripples extend all the way to the president of India, Shrimati Pratibha Devisingh Patil, who, after reading about Rekha in the Hindustan Times newspaper, has requested to meet her. That makes her father happy, and he says he supports her staying in school.
The custom has proved hard to change, says Ms. Crowe, partly because it's often embedded in poverty. Sometimes parents marry off a daugter to lighten their economic burden, though the problem extends into the middle and upper classes too, she adds. It's also incorrectly assumed that an early marriage will protect the girl from violence and sexual abuse from men.
Enforcement of age laws, meanwhile, is hampered by the lack of birth records. Only 40 percent of births in India are registered; in Bangladesh, the number is just 10 percent.
"You can't prove a child is a child if you've got no certificate," Crowe says. The international community is working hard on birth registration, she says, but it's a daunting task in a place like India that has more than 1 billion people.
Back in Bararola, one of those billions faces a brighter future. Rekha says she wants to be a teacher when she grows up.
Is she open to marriage eventually? "Anything after 18," she says, "but not before 18 at all."