India’s child marriage warrior Kriti Bharti is on a mission to rid society of exploitation

The activist has faced death threats as she continues fight to prevent illegal nuptials of Indian girls and boys

Kriti Bharti embraces Santa Devi Meghwal, a victim of child marriage, now 20. AFP
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It’s for good reason that Kriti Bharti is known as India’s child marriage warrior. The activist and psychologist from Jodhpur is famous for annulling 29 child marriages and stalling the illegal nuptials of more than 900 Indian girls and boys, receiving death threats in the process.

“Despite the risk it poses, my work means the world to me,” says Dr Bharti, 35, who founded the Saarthi Trust in 2011. The non-profit organisation protects victims of child marriages and works to empower women. More than 6,000 children and 5,500 women have been rehabilitated by the organisation since its inception.

Although annulment is written into Indian law, few people take on child marriage perpetrators for fear of complex court cases and the stigma associated with divorce. Despite this, Dr Bharti is making progress. In 2012 the Saarthi Trust made history by annulling the first child marriage in India. And 10 years later, in 2022, Dr Bharti was honoured with the Geneva Centre’s Award for Youth Human Rights Champion.

“We try to give the victims a new life by freeing them from heinous exploitation through our rehabilitation programme to help them lead successful, independent lives and speak out against child marriage. We’ve realised that annulling a marriage isn’t enough as many girls are banished from their families or communities following the dissolution of marriage. Vocational training and financial and legal support helps them enormously,” Dr Bharti says.

Kriti Bharti is the founder of the Saarthi Trust. AFP

Many rehabilitated victims have gone on to finish their education and pursue careers in medicine and engineering under the trust. Some have even continued working with the organisation to help rehabilitate other former child brides.

“In India, every time a child marriage is stopped, instead of sympathy, the girl child faces animosity and ostracism. That’s why it’s not just enough to protect such victims, but also to help them get integrated back into society,” Dr Bharti says.

The need for a sustainable solution is, arguably, most imperative in Rajasthan, Dr Bharti’s native state where child marriage rates are some of the world’s highest. She gives the example of a recent rescue of a bride who the team saved when she was 17. She was married at the age of 12, and her family pushed her to live with her 65-year-old husband in Jodhpur.

The family sent Dr Bharti death threats for trying to protect the girl, who had run away at night. The activist took her under her wing and kept her in a safe house. “When I picked up the girl, she was cowering behind a tree at 4am, in the middle of the desert crying inconsolably. She was so disturbed that she preferred to risk her life than live with her family. She’s now safe in a shelter home and we’re working with courts to have her marriage annulled,” Dr Bharti says.

Dr Bharti herself had a traumatic childhood. Her father left her mother before she was born. Her poor, young mother struggled to raise her alone in a family that had branded her as “cursed” and abused her physically. This trauma led to the onset of a mysterious illness that Dr Bharti was able to cure only with Japanese reiki therapy. Renouncing her family name, Chopra, she adopted the surname Bharti, which means daughter of India. She taught herself English by reading newspapers and eventually earned a doctorate in psychology at the Jai Narain Vyas University in Jodhpur.

Instead of merely preaching or campaigning against child marriages, the crusader says she likes to get to the root of the problem by fighting the cases in court. To further accelerate her efforts, she has adopted a unique approach, running a one-woman hotline for underage brides and grooms, with her name and phone number printed in newspapers to provide quick support to the aggrieved.

Legal experts say that despite laws aimed at curbing child marriage — and growing awareness that it contributes to sexual abuse, unsafe pregnancies, lower education rates and greater poverty — the problem remains entrenched in Indian society.

According to 2018 Unicef data, approximately 650 million girls and women alive today were married before their 18th birthday. The report reads: “In South Asia, a girl’s risk of marrying in childhood has declined by more than a third, from nearly 50 per cent a decade ago to 30 per cent today, largely driven by great strides in reducing the prevalence of child marriage in India.

“Nonetheless, South Asia remains home to the largest total number of child brides, with more than 40 per cent of the global burden.”

According to Unicef data last updated in May 2022, 27 per cent of Indian women aged between 20 and 24 were married before their 18th birthday.

As well as working to fight child marriage, Dr Bharti also feels strongly about society’s resistance to usher in lasting change. “Changing mind-sets and breaking the entrenched culture of silence around abuse is imperative by involving all stakeholders,” she says. “Community leaders, the government and non-profits as well as the children and women. This will help establish a society free from all violence, abuse and exploitation against children and women.”

Despite its noble intentions, Dr Bharti’s mission faces criticism and resistance from leaders and parents. She has been threatened with bodily harm by those who support the marriages, and has even faced kidnap attempts.

Despite these challenges, however, she remains unfazed.

“I will continue to reach as many exploited girls as I can. Threats don’t bother me now. They make me more determined to help the poor,” she says. “I see my work as a mission to rid society of malpractices so that every person can live with dignity and honour. Is that too much to ask?”

Updated: March 18, 2023, 8:03 AM