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Laxmi Sargara made history in 2012 when she had her marriage annulled. She and her husband Rakesh are one of the first Indian couples on record to fight against a wedding that took place when they were only children.
Laxmi was a year old when her parents married her to Rakesh, then a local toddler of three. She didn’t even know she had a husband until she was 18 and her in-laws showed up to collect her. In a rare move for an underage Indian bride, Laxmi fought against the marriage. She sought the help of a social worker and a nongovernmental organization in Jodhpur, and eventually convinced Rakesh to agree to the annulment.
This type of child marriage is illegal in India, but still common, especially among poor families in rural areas. Almost half of Indian women are married before they reach the legal age of 18 (for men, the legal age is 21).
It’s a huge public health concern, especially when girls are sent to live with their husbands before the girls reach adulthood. Early marriage often leads to early pregnancy, which is dangerous for young girls whose bodies are not yet fully developed. In fact, some 70,000 girls aged 15–19 die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth every year.
At IntraHealth, we’re helping to train health workers, teachers, and religious leaders in India on the health risks of underage marriage and on ways to prevent it. Our Vistaar Project—which works with the government of India to improve maternal, newborn, and child health and nutrition—has had some great results in the state of Jharkhand. You can read some of them here [PDF].
But early marriage has been part of the Indian culture for centuries. Putting a stop to it is no easy task. Many parents fear for their daughters’ safety and worry that they’ll get into relationships or be raped before they’re married—effectively ruining their chances of finding husbands and bringing dishonor on their families at the same time.
(Fear of rape is a valid concern. Right now, outrage and protests are seething across India over a brutal gang rape in December that left a young woman dead. According to the New York Times, some surveys suggest that India has one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world.)
We’re excited that our work there is playing some role in improving the health and wellbeing of a country that’s so full of people Laxmi’s age. India is, after all, a young country: 45 percent of its population is under twenty years of age. Caring for and investing in this generation will strengthen India’s population for the long run.
Yahoo! named Laxmi Sargara’s freedom from her childhood marriage one of the most inspirational stories of 2012. At IntraHealth, we hope to see more like it in 2013.
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