Based in Jodhpur, Dr. Kriti Bharti's Saarthi Trust has invalidated more than 31 child marriages and prevented over 900 more from happening..
Dr. Kriti Bharti has been advocating against child marriage for over a decade. Based in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, her organization, Saarthi Trust, has invalidated more than 31 child marriages and prevented over 900 more from happening. Her work centered upon rehabilitation of the vulnerable sector of society has saved more than 6,000 children and 5,500 women.
Despite the unlawful status of the child marriage practice in India, it is heavily existent in communities and towns primarily in the remote parts of the country. As per the customs in these conservative communities, weddings are solemnized at a very age, sometimes at birth, and the bride is sent to live with her husband and consummate the union in her teens. Due to its long stretch of prevalence, child marriage has come to be identified as a community practice drawing stark response against nullification or resistance of any kind.
As one of India’s most active campaigners against child marriage, Dr. Bharti has to endure death threats as she takes deliberate action to stop them. She also runs a one-woman hotline for underage brides and grooms. “Child marriage is like a disease: It’s important to prevent it, but when so many are infected, you have to find a way to cure them,” she mentioned in a media interview. She also adds, “To these people, I am like a terrorist against their old ways of thinking.”
In 2012, Dr. Bharti secured the first annulment of a child marriage in India between a couple that was forcefully wed when the groom was three years old and the bride one. The case made major headlines at the time and paved a way for Dr. Bharti to pursue a life fighting the vices of child marriage.
Her nonprofit, Saarthi Trust, is a medium to educate people about the importance of education and injustice of child marriages contributing to sexual abuse, unsafe pregnancies, low rate of education, and poverty. Indian law against child marriage is structured in such a way that although married individuals can request a child marriage annulment for up to two years after the adulthood age in India, 18 for females and 21 for males, it only imposes jail time and an approximate fine of $2,000 CAD.
Activists have long criticized the law for placing onus on the victim for initiating a legal proceeding often times with participation of parents or guardians – a challenging exercise considering weddings are led by these parties themselves. Dr. Bharti approaches the issue by first speaking to the bride and groom’s family to resolve the issue. If both or one of the parties fails to agree to a mutual annulment, she files a case in the court.
Dr. Bharti tells media, “I will speak to her family and the husband’s family to try to make them understand. Some parents eventually understand and help their daughters escape the clutches of the marriage, but others don’t. It would be great if this family allowed the annulment to take place and support the girl, but if they don’t we will turn to the law.” Dr. Bharti’s work extends beyond the prevention and annulment of child marriages. Her nonprofit provides rehabilitation to victims and raises awareness on the evils of this ancient practice.
Dr. Bharti comes from a troubled childhood herself. Her father left the family before she was born, leaving her mother to raise Dr. Bharti by herself. She was considered cursed by the family and experienced beatings and other forms of abuse from them. As she grew older, Dr. Bharti denounced her last name “Chopra” and took on “Bharti” meaning daughter of India, as her last name.
The activist says she learnt English by reading the newspaper everyday and learning new words as she came across them. Eventually she went on to earn a doctorate in psychology from a university in Jodhpur. About 10 years ago, Dr. Bharti began counseling victims of child abuse. She began her crusade by driving across Rajasthan in cabs looking for child brides wanting to challenge their union in court. Now her helpline number is flashed across newspapers and pamphlets.
Dr. Bharti’s work and strength has created life-changing impact on several lives. Despite the criticism, resistance and threats, she continues to fight for as many child brides and grooms as possible. “Child marriage annulment is a curative approach which removes girls from the ‘dark room’ of early marriage. Child marriage can result in sexual assault, human rights violations, and a lack of education and healthcare. We are protecting and rehabilitating girls, whilst at the same time changing the mindsets of communities. This enables girls to lead blissful lives,” Dr. Bharti tells media.
Photos: Saarthi Trust/Facebook