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Sister Sudha threatened Guriya Manji's parents with police action to get the girl back into school.

Stephanie Nolen/The Globe and Mail

Seven girls went missing.

Last fall, Sudha Varghese sent 100 students from Prerna II, her residential school for girls here in the northeast state of Bihar, home to celebrate the Hindu festival of Dushera. Ten days later, only 93 returned. And the veteran social activist and educator suspected that she knew why.

Nine months earlier, when the families came to drop off their daughters, some as young as 8, at the school's grand opening, Sister Sudha had given parents a warm welcome, and a stern warning. "Your girls might look small today, but the school environment, regular meals and sports – all of these things will make them grow faster," she told them.

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"In five or six years, they will start looking big. But then don't start thinking, 'They have grown up and we have to get them married.' You yourself would be taking your daughter off of the path of education, and harming yourselves." She spoke from experience, having had the same problem when the first Prerna opened in 2006.

Sister Sudha and her remarkable schools have appeared in The Globe and Mail regularly over the past year and a half in Breaking Caste, a series highlighting the continued plight of young Dalits, the people once known as "untouchable." The schools are for girls from the Mushahar community, the lowest of the Dalits, consigned to the bottom rung of the Hindu caste system, which remains rigidly in force in this marginalized corner of India.

A couple of semesters at Prerna can have a transformative effect – students are well fed for the first time, able to bathe each day, wear crisp new uniforms and, most important, have the scorn heaped upon their caste replaced with affection and respectful interest in their ideas. They bloom, these girls, transforming in a way that is a joy to behold.

Unless you are their parents. For them, it's terrifying. It is against the law in India for any girl to wed before she is 18 (or boy before he is 21), but it is the tradition, and still the practice, of the Mushahar to marry off their daughters at 12 or 13. The practice is not confined to the Mushahar: The figure for Bihar is 68 per cent, by far the nation's highest. But almost half of all Indian girls, 43 per cent, wed underage.

Like the dowry and the caste system, child marriage is a critical social issue for which India, in so many ways a beacon to the developing world, has fine laws, but lax enforcement. And while there is growing candour about the treatment of women – seen in the recent furor over a gang rape in Delhi – the subject of immature brides is trapped in the past.

Sister Sudha is a Roman Catholic nun from Kerala in India's far south; she came to Bihar to work with the poor 46 years ago. Within months, she had fled a hidebound convent to live in a Dalit village, and has dedicated her life to empowering the Mushahar.

The girls, in particular, have become her focus: She sees them, with the least power but huge potential, as the key to change in communities where no adult has ever spent more than a year or two in school, and women are frequent victims of harassment and sexual assault.

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India's sexual violence epidemic captured world attention recently when a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was brutally gang-raped on a Delhi bus and died of her injuries – but that grim story came as little shock here in Bihar, just over the border from the village the victim's low-caste family had left seeking a better life in the city.

The first of their kind, the Prerna schools (the name means "inspiration" in Hindi) have proved revolutionary, not just for the girls, whose lives are turn from malnourished illiterate domestic drudgery into a glittering string of achievements, but also for their wider community, which is seeing Dalit girls in a whole new way.

Prerna students have won international karate championships and district-wide art contests, and been singled out by the Chief Minister of Bihar for their accomplishments. But the notion that girls must marry before they are 14 – for their own safety, for their family's honour and financial reprieve – has proved tenacious. Sister Sudha has seen students leave and go, in a matter of weeks, from being voracious readers, staying up late to study under a weak bulb, to child brides tending fires and pigs, soon damaged by pregnancies their bodies are too immature to carry safely.

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.

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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.

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"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?"

She knows that 18 is the legal age of marriage, but it's so far off. "In five years, she will grow bigger and I can't keep an eye on her all the time, and what can happen?" she asked. "So many things can happen. Someone could misuse her sexually. Even she could get entangled with some boys who are around. Many things are being shown on TV and the young children imitate it. It's outside influences."

She and her husband, Amit, are at work all day, hoeing and planting for a dominant-caste landowner, and cannot guard her. "All the girls her age are married – she's the only who is not," she said, wringing her hands. "It's not right, but parents can't keep watch so they get them married."

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Guriya's father chimed in: "If I marry her, this girl is out of my way; it's off my shoulders."

Sexual assault is a constant and very real fear – dominant-caste men view Mushahar girls as easy prey who can be assaulted with no legal consequence, since police rarely pursue complaints made by Dalits. A girl must be "chaste" if parents are to secure her a husband. And because a girl becomes the property of her husband's family, the sooner she and her dowry can be settled, the better, for parents anxious about this huge financial obligation.

Neighbours and relatives squeezed into the room to offer their opinions, but Sister Sudha sent them out again. She put the question at last to Guriya: What do you want to do? Study? Get married?

The girl was rigid with anxiety and the unaccustomed sensation of being given choices about her own life. "Don't feel scared," Sister Sudha said, briefly touching her shoulder. "Don't feel that you're caught or trapped. What you want is the priority. If there's any problem with the school, a reason that you didn't want to come back, I need to know so I can fix it."

At last, Guriya burst out: "It was better there. I'm not happy at home. I would like to study. I want to go back."

But back was not part of the plan. Sister Sudha had already given away her spot – there are hundreds of girls on the waiting list. When the seven did not return by the new year, she replaced them. Her goal with this visit was not to bring Guriya back – she felt the family had had an opportunity, and wasted it – but a last attempt to keep her from becoming a child bride.

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Sister Sudha constantly steels herself in the face of the endless needs she confronts, but Guriya's desperation softened her resolve. The nun's brow crinkled as she tried to work out how she could squeeze one more girl into a dormitory already bursting at its seams. "I'll try to make an arrangement – only for you," she said finally. "It's a last chance."

She turned then to Lailun. "You did not get a chance. Now, your daughter is getting a chance. You shouldn't say one word to stop her. Give her a chance to have her dream come true."

Lailun, by then in tears, pulled up her shawl toward her eyes. "I was thinking, How will I face you," she said. She had suspected that Guriya would not be allowed simply to disappear.

Sister Sudha left the parents with a warning. "If I learn you are planning to get her married, I'll lodge a police complaint. For five more years, you must give her education."

Back in the street, Sister Sudha had to laugh at the sight of Guriya, who was trying and failing to maintain a serious expression; a grin pulled at the corners of the girl's mouth and she was shivery with excitement. Climbing into her rattletrap jeep, Sister Sudha said with a sigh that she could not be too angry with the parents, because the busybody neighbours remind her how difficult their choices are – to be the first generation to break from tradition, to send their children into a world they have no idea how to navigate.

Her visit, she knows, may give the Manjis cover. Now, if people want to gossip or criticize them about Guriya, they can claim, "We would get her married, of course, but then we might end up in jail."

Until now, the problem with this tactic has been the police themselves: The Bihar force, overworked, under-resourced and as embedded in caste prejudice as the society it nominally serves, has not traditionally concerned itself overmuch with the human rights of Dalits, certainly not Dalit schoolgirls. Sister Sudha said she has fought for years to have police take complaints of rape and abuse seriously – if she reported a marriage done with the parents' consent, she would be laughed out of the station.

But the soft-spoken and thoughtful police chief now in charge of Gaya is cut from different cloth. "Unless and until parents take cognizance of the fact that getting children married at such a young age has such adverse implications on their health and their education, things will not change," he said a few days after Sister Sudha sought out Guriya. "If we are educating the girl, we are educating the whole family, and she is able to take care of the children she will give birth to."

These are startling observations from a Bihari police officer, but Supt. Kumar understands Sister Sudha's desire to use the law. And if it comes to it, if parents push ahead with the marriages, he is ready to charge them.

But he hopes it won't be necessary. "I don't think it's going to give a long-term solution. … When you are sending parents to jail, who will take care of the children, who are already very vulnerable? In most cases, the parents are [marrying them off] under certain circumstances – because they are not financially able to support the girl, or under community pressure. First, we have to create awareness, so they don't see their children as a liability."

Over the next few days, Sister Sudha and her staff tried to track down the other girls who did not come back, but these visits did not go as well.

Four hours' drive west of Gaya in the tiny village of Dharmpur, they went looking for four girls. One had been taken from Bihar to the big city, Kolkata, by her migrant-worker father, and no one had news of them. But at the Kumar home, they found Chandni, 14, sitting morose and listless in the courtyard of the house her family shares with three sets of uncles, aunts and their children.

Asked why she was not back at Prerna, the family blustered – "She was sick! She's going to a local school instead! Her mother has a new baby, and Chandni has to help!" But it took about three minutes for the truth to come out – they were hunting for a husband. Chandni has two cousins who also left Prerna, a 13-year-old for whom the family is also seeking a groom, and a nine-year-old whose mother decided not to send her because the older girls were not going.

Sister Sudha's network of Dalit organizers has only recently started to work in this area. None of the adults in this family – or the village, for that matter – had ever been to school, and as they talked, it was clear they saw little point in it. "We're working people," one aunt said with a shrug. "We have to work all day to feed ourselves." All the adults, and some children, do agricultural day labour for about $2 a day.

And what about the age-of-marriage law? Here, hours from a town, the idea that the police might concern themselves with a girl's wedding is so alien as to be baffling. Chandni, when asked, said with a sigh that she misses playing, and studying at Prerna. She liked computer class, and karate. But she has three close friends in the village, and all now have husbands, so she knows what's waiting for her.

"I don't want to be married yet," she said with a burst of courage. "I want to study."

Her mother and aunts continued their conversation as if she had not spoken.

The Prerna team left frustrated, with a sense there was little progress to be made in the short term. "We will have to do more to show them the possibilities that come with education," Sister Sudha said after her staff reported back about Dharmpur.

But for one of the lost girls, at least, there is a second chance.

Sister Sudha squeezed an extra bed into the dorm, and a few weeks ago, Guriya put on her red and white uniform and went back to school.

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