They are also too young to know how to navigate the complicated dynamics of living in domestic servitude to their husband’s family, and often face abuse. Once married, they never go back to school.
Over all, India’s child-marriage figures are creeping downward – over the past 20 years, there has been a 15-per-cent drop in the number of girls married before 18 – but among the Mushahar, the rate has hardly budged. And it threatens everything Sister Sudha is trying to achieve.
Last fall, she waited a week or two and, when the seven missing girls still did not come back to school, she put out feelers in the community. Her suspicions were soon confirmed: In most cases, the parents were reported to be looking for husbands.
In the past, when girls have been pulled from her schools to be married, Sister Sudha has tried, with varying degrees of success, to talk parents out of it. At the first Prerna, near Patna, the state capital, the number has declined each year, as the community gets used to the idea of an unwed 16-year-old – and sees Sister Sudha’s protégées becoming teachers or public-health education workers, an unfathomable idea a few years ago. This year all students at Prerna 1 returned after the holidays.
But the activist has grown weary of badgering parents. So this time, when the girls disappeared, she did something new – she went to the police. She had checked out the city’s new superintendent of police, and found Vinay Kumar to be unusually compassionate, thoughtful and committed to social justice. And in him, she thought she might have an ally. Perhaps a few arrests for “permitting child marriage” would jolt the community into rethinking this practice.
And so, on a crisp but sunny morning last month, she set off for Kaleru Bhontoli, a Mushahar settlement outside Gaya, making her way past a field of bright yellow mustard plants, down a warren of small streets to the home of Guriya Manji, one of the girls who had not come back.
Her arrival drew all the neighbours out of their houses, but it was not difficult to spot Guriya, 13, in the crowd. Her hair was brushed in a shiny black bob just like she learned at school, her brilliant pink salwar-kameez was crisp and clean, and she stood out amid the grime and the tousle-haired, dust-caked children as if a spotlight were on her.
Everyone suspected why Sudha didi (she is universally known here by the Hindi word for elder sister) had come. And quickly, in voices barely lowered, they were advising Guriya to lie.
Sister Sudha took the girl into her family’s two-room, pink-walled mud house, and sent neighbours off to find her parents. “I’ve inquired, and people say you are looking for a match,” she said bluntly when they arrived.
“No, no. It’s not true – she’s 13!” Guriya’s mother, Lailun, protested. Like many others, the Manjis have heard about the law – the first legislation “restraining” child marriage dates from 1929 and the age for girls was set at 18 in 1978. But the latest law prohibiting the practice was enacted just over five years ago, and only recently has Bihar’s development-focused state government begun to advertise it.
So, the Manjis knew what they were supposed to say. But they do not know anyone who has ever been charged with marrying an underaged girl. (There have been just a handful of convictions across India.) In fact, they do not know any girls who were older than 14 when they wed. Lailun is 31, give or take a few years (birth records for the Mushahar are a recent phenomenon), and says she married at 13.
For 45 minutes, there was a circular, uneasy conversation, Guriya staring fixedly at the floor and insisting in a tiny voice that it had been her idea not to go back to school.
And then her mother’s worries began to pour out. Lailun said the sight of her daughter grown tall and “fat” (which is to say, less skeletally malnourished than other women in the community) startled her when Guriya came home for the holiday. “I got a frightening vision: If we leave her five years, what will she look like?”