Many children are married off while in school by parents, who cock a snook at the law
Shivlal is a student of Class 8. Of late, he has been faring poorly in his studies. He has also told his mother that he will flunk in the annual exam.
The reason: He is to be married off at an age when children of his ilk are busy studying or just enjoying the age of innocence - and he can't stand the barracking of his classmates.
Child brides: Indra, Pushpa and Upma have been married off by their parents (Photo: IANS)
"I don't feel like coming to class. My classmates make fun of me. They call me 'pamna' and I hate it," said the 14-year-old Shivlal to this visiting correspondent.
Pamna means bridegroom in the local language.
Ratni, who is Shivlal's classmate and also his fiancee, endures such lampoons every day at the school.
"I don't like Shivlal, but my mother says we will get married soon," Ratni said rather matter-of-factly.
Standing on the premises of a primary school at Mora village in Rajasthan's Rajsamand district, Ratni, who looks younger than her age, seemed resigned to her fate.
According to the United Nations, Rajasthan accounts for the second highest number of child marriages and also ranks second in the world in this social evil.
Rajsamand is one of those districts in the state with a high prevalence of marriages. Despite the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act being in place, the practice is still rampant in northern India.
The act states that a girl in India can't marry before the age of 18 and a boy before 21.
We visited several villages and met many parents marrying their children off at an early age, which leads to many health problems among girls.
Seven-year-old Upma is among the unlucky ones in Mora village.
"My mother doesn't allow me to play because I am married," said a playful Upma.
The boy she has been married to lives in the neighbouring village of Sakarwas.
"I don't know," 12-year-old Pushpa replied shyly when asked how she felt at being married off.
"Child marriage is a major problem here. Imagine a girl getting pregnant when she is 15. This is one of the main reasons of high rates of maternal and child mortality in this state," said Nita Kumawat, who works with an NGO, JATAN Sansthan.
Nearly every woman in the village that we came across looked anemic and sick.
One of them was 31-year-old Sankari Devi, Pushpa's mother, who was married at the age of five. She has six children.
"I became mother when I was 16. I always feel sick," said a grey-haired Devi, who recently underwent sterilization surgery.
Asked why she married off Pushpa at an early age, she said: "I hate it, but child marriage is our custom. Also we cannot bear the burden of ceremonial expenses. Pushpa was married off along with her two elder sisters."
Most of the inhabitants belong to lower Hindu castes. The men are either landless farmers or migrant labour.
"Child marriage is strongly entrenched in the customs of Rajasthan. Besides poverty, this is also because of lack of education," Kumawat added.
Rajsamand District Magistrate K.C. Verma claims that his administration stopped over 200 marriages in the area.
"We can stop such marriages only to some extent as it's difficult to keep track of every family. We talk to villagers and ask the workers at Anganwadis to counsel them against child marriages," said Verma.
Locals say that even the women workers at Anganwadis marry their children off at an early age.
Anganwadis cater to children in the 0-6 age group and provide outreach services to pregnant women in need of immunization and healthy food.
"I have told my parents several times that child marriage is illegal but they still got me engaged. In fact, we have had mock meetings of parliament in our school against this practice but to no avail," said 14-year-old Reena Kumawat.
Sadly, there is no one to hear her lament.
(Gaurav Sharma can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story is part of a National Media Fellowship awarded by the National Foundation for India in association with World Vision India) - IANS