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Breaking the Cycle of Child Marriage in India

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By Jennifer Abrahamson

Savita Singh, a slight 18-year-old schoolgirl who confesses she is poor at math but aspires to attend college to study Hindi and history, admits she has another, secret dream.

"I want to work for the Haryana police force," Savita told me, explaining that she is passionate about prosecuting families who she says abuse and sometimes even set fire to their daughters-in-law in the region. "But I know that my dream won't be fulfilled. I'm not tall enough."

Savita shared her secret with me in a cramped, dark room two days before the horrific gang rape and subsequent death of a young woman in Delhi that caught the world's attention and sparked outrage across India in December. We sat on low charpoy beds, the wooden and rope structures that are ubiquitous in Haryana state, along with Savita's sisters, Kirin, who is 20, and Rekha, 15. High, concrete walls behind the girls were adorned with posters of Hindu gods and faraway places. Rekha and Kirin also told me about their ambitions to become teachers, to continue their studies, to wait to marry until they are ready.

While child marriage is still prevalent throughout India, the fact that the Singh sisters harbor such dreams at all may signal a subtle, generational shift in this conservative, agricultural state bordering the capital. Until recent years it was extremely common for girls to marry in their early to mid-teens. Although illegal, they still do, but to a lesser degree.

One of those girls was Munni, Savita's 37-year-old mother who thinks she married when she was 15. Both Munni and her husband Amar, a soft-spoken farmer with high cheekbones, a kind face and a sixth-grade education, were determined to see all three of their daughters finish high school even if they can't afford to send them to college. Munni in particular was adamant that Savita and her sisters focus on their studies instead of working the fields.

"I never went to school because my parents had fields and I had buffalo to tend to and they said to me, 'what's the point of you going to school if you're only going to work with dung anyway? What's the point of pretending you'll be a Madam?'" she told me over hot cups of spiced chai in a modest courtyard just outside the girls' bedroom. "I feel very good that my daughters have the chance to study," she added.

This was not the first time I heard such statements during my short visit to Haryana, where I met with a number of girls from poor families like Savita. She is among the first class of girls who took part in a Haryana government scheme established in 1994 called Apni Beti Apna Dhan (ABAD) -- 'Our Daughter Our Wealth,' in English. The government is now in the process of paying out bonds that were deposited in each participant's name when she was born. Today they are worth somewhere in the range of $350-$500; girls will receive them only if they were still unmarried at the time of their18th birthday last year.

The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) is currently undertaking an evaluation of the scheme to determine its impact on this first cohort of girls. Initial findings will be published in late 2013. While the ICRW evaluation is still underway and its findings are still far from conclusive, its seems the scheme may have, at least in part, contributed to delaying marriage for some participants -- even if it didn't mean a fundamental change in attitudes about a girl's value.

ICRW's Turning Point Campaign aims to draw attention to that very fragile time -- adolescence -- when girls in particular are at a heightened risk of dropping out of school, child marriage, falling victim to violence and facing serious health conditions like pregnancy complications and HIV infection. As part of the campaign, ICRW is working towards unearthing solutions to end child marriage and raise awareness of the issue -- millions of girls like Savita confront around the world.

But Savita -- and her older sister Kirin -- are luckier than many. The Singhs told me that they decided to wait to find a husband for 20-year-old Kirin until Savita receives the cash transfer. Marrying girls in a joint wedding is relatively common in Haryana as it helps cut costs. The Singhs youngest daughter, Rekha, is also scheduled to receive an ABAD cash transfer after she turns 18 in a few years' time.

Amar and Munni seemed especially enlightened regarding the importance of their daughters' education. However, after speaking with them in the fading afternoon sunlight next to a couple of lazing buffalo, it soon became clear that an education was mainly so important because it means increasing the chances of finding their daughters good husbands who hold down good jobs.

In the meantime, Savita and Rekha will continue their studies, while Kirin works as a teacher's assistant in her village. Savita knows marriage is on the horizon, but she recognizes the value of living out her childhood and staying in school - even if her future in-laws, whoever they may be, won't be willing or able to send her to college.

"I wouldn't have liked getting married at a younger age. I would have had to leave school and take on the responsibilities of another household," she told me.

When I asked Savita if she would have been able to care for a baby when she was still herself a child, she was quick to shake her head.

"This is my time to 'eat and drink' -- my time to have fun, my time to be in my parents' house. This is the time when I can do it. This is my time."

Perhaps another shift will occur when the next generation comes of age. Perhaps Savita's own daughter will have the chance to go to college or become a policewoman. Just as long as she's tall enough.

A version of this blog previously appeared on the Too Young to Wed website.

You can give to ICRW's contest page at http://www.crowdrise.com/ICRWTurning-Point