In a remote village in Pakistan’s Punjab province, Aasia Bibi stirred poison into her husband’s drink. They had been married a month, against Bibi's wishes. The 21-year-old was already in a relationship with another man, and had warned her parents she’d go to any lengths to escape the marriage. But they didn’t take her threats seriously.
After her husband refused the drink, Bibi’s mother-in-law used the tainted milk to prepare lassi. Seventeen members of the family died. After her arrest on murder charges on October 30, 2017, Bibi told the assembled press why she did it. "I repeatedly asked my parents not to marry me against my will as my religion, Islam, also allows me to choose the man of my choice for marriage, but my parents rejected all of my pleas, and married me to a relative," Bibi said in comments reported by the Washington Post.
While not all lead to newspaper headlines and multiple poisonings, forced marriages are a reality across much of Asia. According to the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs, in 2016, 33,796 women and 16,695 girls were forced into marriage—often kidnapped by their families, spurned lovers, and even total strangers. According to a recent report from ActionAid India, a third of the world’s child brides are Indian. By definition, all of these marriages are forced—as the girls are too young to consent.
Although stories like Aasia Bibi’s make headlines around the world, for the majority of Indian women forced into marriage, their struggle for freedom remains behind closed doors. Trapped by a lack of education, economic circumstance, or violent and controlling partners, the vast majority of forced marriage victims aren’t able to escape. But some do break free.
Twenty-seven-year-old software engineer Haritha Khandabattu, from southern India, had always been an ambitious student. She wanted to become an engineer after she graduated, but was pushed by her parents to accept an arranged marriage.
The pressure, she says, grew to the extent where her father almost stopped talking to her. Unable to take the stress, Khandabattu gave in and ended up marrying a man she didn’t know or love. For two years, she endured his unreasonable behavior, excessive dowry demands, and incessant accusations of adultery. But one day, after a huge fight with her husband, Khandabattu asked for a divorce and told her company to relocate her to Amsterdam.
When Khandabattu told her family about the divorce, they asked her to return to India to discuss it. Her relatives stole her passport and credit cards from her husband’s home. Determined to escape, Khandabattu got a new passport and secretly returned to the Netherlands. She decided that even if she wasn’t officially divorced, she would never return to India.
“As a woman, I did everything I could do to please my husband,” she tells me. “It’s an Indian thing—respecting your marriage—and I did that wholeheartedly. But it was never reciprocated. Every person has a threshold, and when they reach it, they cannot take it anymore. I reached mine, and decided to look for my own happiness.”
A year later, Khandabattu shared her story in a social media post that went viral, receiving 28,000 Facebook likes. After several lawyers offered her assistance, Khandabattu returned to India with police protection in January 2017 and obtained a divorce.
Now, the two years she spent married feel like a distant, awful memory. "They were a nightmare to me, and I'm glad I got out of that marriage. Whatever I've been through, it's over now. I don't think about it anymore," she says.
But not all Indian women have the economic means to leave a forced marriage, or the education to articulate what’s happening to them. According to UNICEF, a typical forced marriage victim will be young, poor, uneducated, and from a rural area—all factors that make it exceptionally difficult for them to escape. Sometimes, these women aren’t even aware they have been married until they reach puberty.
The practice of marrying Indian girls as babies is rumored to date back to the 10th century, when it was a tactic to prevent Hindu girls being abducted by invading Muslim armies—as they were already married, and couldn’t be remarried to their invaders. And, like many Indian women in rural areas, 21-year-old Santadevi Meghwal was married when she was just eleven months old in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. She was kept in the dark about her marriage until she started menstruating when, as per local tradition, she was to be sent to live with her husband and his family. But Meghwal refused to go. This did not go down well with her village council, and the jati panchayat—the local kangaroo court—slapped her family with a $25,000 fine.
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“They said I had insulted age-old traditions, and that I should either pay up or go live with my husband. I didn’t want to go to him—he was an alcoholic and a pervert,” Meghwal says. “He would make sexual comments about random women passing by.”
Unable to pay the fine, Meghwal’s family refused to comply with the jati panchayat’s demands. “That’s when the kangaroo court called for a social boycott on our family—no one would speak to us, or invite us to any celebrations or funerals in the village,” she says.
Meghwal says that the events pushed her into a state of “sheer helplessness.” Her husband, who was nine years older than her, had started stalking her. His family was threatening to abduct her by force. Her father caved in to pressure from the jati panchayat, and asked her to accept the marriage as her fate. She learnt about an NGO in her town, the Saarthi Trust, which helps women in forced marriages. She fled her home and sought refuge with the shelter.
“I had to hold countless counselling sessions with Santadevi’s father to convince him that if his daughter was standing up against her child marriage, she wasn’t in the wrong,” says Dr. Kriti Bharti, the founder of the NGO. “Parents in such cases are usually reluctant to support their daughters because they fear humiliation, and the consequences of being ostracized by their communities.” Dr Bharti adds that Meghwal’s father eventually supported his daughter’s decision, but that the village council took much longer to agree.
Dr. Bharti’s work to aid Meghwal and other child brides has, at times, been dangerous. She’s survived an attempted kidnapping, after the family of a child bride she was representing asked to meet her in a secluded spot on the outskirts of Jodhpur to discuss an annulment (she’d anticipated something was amiss, and had volunteers stationed nearby to rescue her). While representing Meghwal, Dr. Bharti also received rape threats from the jati panchayat. "They said, 'you know what happens to women these days. Back off, or we'll have you raped. Even the law won't be able to do anything to us.'”
But, Dr. Bharti feels, it was all worth it to help Meghwal escape. “Now that I look back, I know it was worth the torture we went through, because Santadevi’s marriage was annulled two years ago,” Dr. Bharti says. Thanks to Dr. Bharti, Meghwal is safe and happy now. “I’m now pursuing my dream of becoming a teacher,” Meghwal tells me.
Pinky Kanwar, 18, was also married when she was a child. Her aunt arranged the match when she was just ten years old. Although Kanwar didn’t have to live with her husband until she reached puberty, her aunt told her that her new husband was HIV positive. Kanwar was too young to understand the disease or what it meant for her, but her mother asked for an annulment.
“After he learnt that my mother wouldn’t let me go, my husband would come to our home drunk, and abuse us. Once, when I was alone at home, my in-laws arrived, shoved me into a car, and were about to drive off when neighbors came to my rescue,” Kanwar says. After that incident, Kanwar and her mother were terrified that she would be kidnapped again. “She would hide me in cupboards, at her workplace, at neighbours’ homes,” she goes on.
One night, tired of living in fear, Kanwar fled her home without any cash or belongings. Almost miraculously, Dr. Bharti spotted her walking alone on the road. She slowed down and asked if Kanwar—then barely 13—needed help. Kanwar began to cry. Dr. Bharti took her in and helped her annul her marriage in 2015.
But without a benefactor and protector, violence sometimes provides women with the only means of escape.
In August, 2016, 22-year-old Sila Das, from the eastern Indian state of Odisha, killed her husband on their wedding night. According to Das’s confession to the police, her family had married her against her wishes to a 30-year-old man, Sanjay Kumar Setha. With her lover’s help, Das allegedly mixed tranquilizer tablets in Setha's milk. After he lost consciousness, she injected two vials of insulin in his body, killing him instantly. The police subsequently arrested Das and her boyfriend, Bijas Chaudhary, on murder charges.
Typically, violence is the last resort of desperate, uneducated women. “If a woman is literate,” says Majid Memon, a Mumbai-based criminal lawyer, “she will understand her rights; [and] convince her parents of them even if they’re uneducated. This will prevent her from being forced into a marriage in the first place, and shall subsequently avert such extreme outbursts.”
Sometimes, women direct this violence inwards. Selvi (she prefers we withheld her surname, for privacy reasons), was forced into marriage at 14, in southern India’s Karnataka state. Speaking to me through an interpreter, Selvi is shy and reluctant to talk about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her alcoholic husband. But one day Selvi couldn’t take it anymore, and walked to a local highway with the intention of throwing herself under a bus. As she waited for a bus, she started to think about her life.
“I realized that if I killed myself, people would blame me,” she explains. “[They’d] say all sorts of things about my upbringing. I wouldn’t have a chance to prove to them that I wasn’t in the wrong.”
Instead, Selvi fled her marriage and found a local NGO that could help her. Eventually she trained as a driver, becoming India’s first female taxi driver, and the subject of an award-winning documentary, Driving with Selvi. Selvi tells me that when left her abusive marriage, India had a dearth of support systems for women and girls in her situation. Now, technological developments like the internet and smartphones mean that it’s easier for women to connect with local groups.
But even if technology can help women escape their forced marriages, the problem will persist until the country’s culture changes. "Indian society has normalized the practice of forced marriages," says Memon. "And with such ideas still strong in India’s social fabric, the problem of forced marriages is here to stay."