Anjana* was in Class 5, when one night, her parents woke her up in the middle of the night and informed her that it was her wedding day. They thrust a set of clothes into her hands, and asked her to get dressed as quickly as she could. The groom? Her maternal uncle, Mahantesh*. “I was promised to my maternal uncle even before I was born,” the school going girl in Karnataka’s Belagavi district tells TNM. “I did not have a choice. Girls in my village rarely do,” Anjana, now 18 years old, says..Anjana’s grandmother had made her mother Banumati* promise, before she died, that her first girl child will be married to Mahantesh. And since this is a custom in the district, the family did not think anything of following through with the promise when Anjana was barely 11 years old..“I still remember that night. It was raining. I was in a state of panic. I knew my parents would beat me up if I did not do as they said. So, I got dressed as soon as possible. I remember begging my mother to not pull me out of school, and I promised her I would do anything she asked me to if she let me go to school,” Anjana recounts. “In my village, girls don’t study after they get married. She asked me to marry my uncle and I agreed. I was so scared and relieved at the same time. But mostly, I was angry at myself for not speaking up,” she adds..For the next two years, Anjana’s life did not change much. Banumati kept her word, and did not force her daughter to drop out of school. However, it all came crashing down during the summer vacation after she completed Class 7..“My mother told me that I am a woman and that I must now have children. I did not even know how children were born back then. I remember thinking about arguing with my mother, but I did not have the courage to. That night, when I was lying in bed, I kept thinking about what it would be like if I spoke up. I was happy being brave in my imagination. I would imagine giving my mother a long speech about why I did not want to have babies. I even practised it several times,” Anjana says..“My parents forced me to drop out of school. I wanted to tell them that I wanted to be a doctor but I was scared so I didn’t say anything. I wish I had,” Anjana says..A few months later, Anjana became pregnant. Her parents lauded her for her effort, and decided to send her to her paternal grandmother’s home, as it would be dangerous for them to keep her in the village – what if the authorities found out?.“I was in my grandmother’s village, and as usual, I was drying out the clothes that were washed. I came inside and decided to take a nap. That’s when I thought I got my period. Since it was hurting a lot, I put on my pad and decided to go to sleep. I did not know that I was miscarrying. This was about three-and-a-half months after I became pregnant. My grandmother called a local doctor and she treated me in the house itself. My husband was very angry about it. Everyone made me feel like I had done something wrong,” Anjana recounts..A few months after the incident, Anjana decided to go back to school and informed her parents about her decision. “It was the first time this had happened. My parents refused to send me back. One afternoon, I sneaked out to meet my friends after years, and I told them what happened. My teacher had come to our house and he threatened to call the police. My parents agreed to send me back to school after that,” she adds..Anjana’s story was never reported. She now lives with her paternal grandmother and is planning on finishing Class 10 through a correspondence course. Anjana says she still has nightmares about the day she lost her baby. “My uncle died last year. He had a drinking problem. I am learning how to cope with it. I am not the only one who has been through this. There are girls who are still going through this every day,” she says..Since January 2017, 234 child marriages have been reported in Belagavi district alone, and 227 of them have been stopped. The district also recorded the second highest number of reported child marriages in Karnataka in this period. According to the National Family Health Survey 2015-16, 35.7% of girls in Belagavi were married before the age of 18 and 12% of girls between the age of 15-19 were already mothers..Officials with the Belagavi district Child Protection Cell say that this ancient practice is still followed by many across the district, despite the numerous awareness camps run by the government – and one reason is superstition..“Generally, when there is a death in the family, they believe that a happy occasion is necessary for the dead person’s soul to rest in peace. The most common way of dealing with this is holding a wedding ceremony. But if there is no child to be married off, then such promises are made and once the girls are born, the parents think of the promise as sacred and get their daughters married to the maternal uncle,” says Bharati Shettar, District Child Protection Officer in Belagavi..Source: Department of Women and Child Welfare, Karnataka.Threat to life and the cycle of abuse.Suhasini’s* is another such story. The girl from Bagalkot was promised to be married to her maternal uncle, Hanumanthappa*, even before she was born. When she was in Class 8, her parents decided to follow through with the promise. However, unlike Anjana, Suhasini was aware of the state-run programmes which could help her..“I called the Childline,” Suhasini tells TNM. “We learned about it in a lesson in Social Studies and I went to the police station and told the officers that my parents wanted me to marry my uncle. The police and social workers got my parents to the station and counselled my parents. At the station, my parents agreed to not get me married,” she says..Little did she know that the agreement was a farce. “When we came back from the police station, my parents and my uncle, who lives in our house, began beating me. They told me that they would kill me if I ever thought of going to the police,” Suhasini recalls..That very night, in a ceremony held in her house, Suhasini was married off to Hanumanthappa. “It was in September last year (2017). I don’t remember the date. But they forced me to get married to my uncle. I knew my father would kill me if I did not do as he said.”.Suhasini was forced to drop out of school. Her parents informed her that she was required to do household chores as the rest of them were working. “My father is a mason. My mother works in other people’s fields. My husband was jobless but he lied about going to work. I was to cook and clean the house. But my husband was also cruel. He would hurt me every night. I hated being in that house,” Suhasini says..In July 2018 that Suhasini was finally able to access her father’s cell phone. She immediately called Childline and informed them of her situation..“My parents were very cautious. They had told my neighbours to keep an eye out. They would tell my parents if I ever stepped out. There was no phone and no way I could communicate with anyone. When I called Childline, I told them that I did not want to stay with my parents,” Suhasini said..Keshav, a Child Protection Officer in Bagalkot, rushed to Suhasini’s village with a team of officials and police officers and rescued her. She has been staying at a state-sponsored NGO for survivors of child marriage – Ujjwala – ever since..“There are many such cases which I have handled where the girls do not report that they have been victims of child marriage because they fear their parents may kill them,” says Suvarna, a counsellor with the Bagalkot Child Protection Cell, who is also a social worker..“Generally, these are also children who have faced physical abuse in the form of severe beatings from their parents. They begin living in fear and tend to get scared at the sound of their parents’ footsteps. There is always a sense of anxiety, and every move they make will be thought out. Whether or not they will get beaten up for saying or doing something is the first thought that comes in the child’s mind. This is very dangerous for the child's mental health and it takes years to get them out of it. I see it happening to most of the girls rescued in our district,” Suvarna says..The need to protect familial wealth and financial constraints.In 2017, 14-year-old Kamala* was married off to her 31-year-old maternal uncle Suresh* in a secret ceremony in their home in Vijayapura district. Kamala’s parents had been looking for a groom since she turned 13..“Although my mother had promised my grandfather that she would get me married to my uncle when she was pregnant with me, my parents thought that if I was to be married to a rich man, their financial troubles would be sorted. For a year, all the alliances they were looking for did not last because of dowry demands. My paternal uncle, who is quiet wealthy, learnt of their efforts and he intervened. They decided to get me married that very day. My parents did not have a say because both of them are unemployed and depend on my uncle for money. So, I was married to my maternal uncle and the gold chain and bangles which were given as dowry were pawned to ensure that my husband could set up a convenient store,” she says..Kotresh TM, an independent social worker in Davangere says that in families with a lower economic background, the trend of marrying girls to their maternal uncles is generally considered a “rational choice” in order to keep the wealth within the family..“Although dowry is a crime, it is still very much prevalent and everyone knows about it. The belief is that if the girls are married off at a young age, the dowry money and jewellery will stay within the family and not be given to someone else. In many cases, the girls are married to maternal uncles because the dowry amount is low. The maternal uncle also would be staying with the girl’s parents,” Kotresh says..Mallika*, a Class 10 student from Koppal district, was married off to her maternal uncle during her cousin’s wedding ceremony, so the family would be spared the expense..“Two years ago, my cousin brother was getting married. My parents were thinking about getting me married to my uncle for a while. Since my mother had made a pact with her brother that her first girl child would be married to him, they wanted it to happen soon. This was because my uncle was 37 years old at the time, and he wanted to have babies. There were many disagreements between my mother and my uncle and finally, during my cousin’s wedding, they decided to get me married to him in order to save money,” she says..Speaking to TNM, Veerendra Navadagi, District Child Protection Officer says that in several cases where the girls have been rescued so far, the parents are poor and get the girls married off in order to be spared the expense. “According to them, if the girl is highly educated, then they would have to find a groom who would be more educated than her. The wedding expenses would be too much. The mindset is such that if the girls are very young, then they won’t argue with them. Marrying them off to their maternal uncles is very very common in Karnataka. This way, the family will not have to face any kind of backlash from the groom’s family about the extravagance of the wedding and dowry is comparatively less,” he added..FIR rarely filed.According to the National Crime Records bureau, only 293 cases have been filed under the Prevention of Child Marriage Act in 2016, across the country. Of these, only 53 cases reached conviction. In 2014, 280 cases were booked and 49 persons were convicted..The trend is the same in Karnataka, too. For instance, in Bagalkot district, of the 52 cases of child marriages that were reported between January 2017 and June 2018, no FIRs were registered. In Vijayapura district, 65 cases were reported during this period and here, too, no FIRs were registered..According to data obtained from the Department of Women and Child Welfare, in Davangere, Dharwad, Gadag, Hassan, Haveri, Kodagu and Kolar districts, too, no FIRs were filed despite numerous cases of child marriages being reported. Data from the department shows that of the 2,216 cases that were reported across Karnataka between January 2017 and June 2018, only three persons have been convicted, and all the convictions were from cases filed in Chikkaballapura district..“When it comes to child marriage, the persons who will be booked are the parents and the man who they were married to. One of the reasons why FIRs are rarely filed is because its family and parents who are involved. The girls say that they don’t want any cases to be filed against their parents. All they want is to get away from the men who they were married to. In most of the cases, the girls only want to be offered the security of not being forced to marry,” says Keshav, an officer with the Bagalkot Child Protection Cell..Another reason, officials say is that there is rarely any evidence to prosecute and the primary witnesses – the girls themselves – are scared to come forward. Keshav says that in order to ensure that the case is watertight, sections of Prevention of Children against Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act are also added in cases where FIRs are registered..“Most of these marriages take place at night and there are no grand ceremonies with hundreds of witnesses. The victims of child marriage are the only ones who can testify and generally, in most cases I have seen, the girls are scared to speak up. They are riddled with guilt and do not want to be responsible for sending their parents to jail. Another reason is that when there is sexual assault involved, then the police have to take cognizance and register FIRs, but in most cases, the girls are scared and only after months or may be years of counselling do they open up about the episodes of sexual assault. It is difficult for such young children to cope with all these things. We file POCSO charges in such cases and if the conviction does not happen for child marriage, then there is a possibility the conviction may happen for the POCSO case,” Keshav adds..Source: Department of Women and Child Welfare, Karnataka.The fallout of void child marriages.On April 26, 2017, the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Karnataka Amendment) Act was passed, declaring child marriages as void ab initio, or invalid in law. This was the culmination of efforts at the state level, including a recommendation of the Justice Shivaraj Patil Committee report, which was set up to review the status of child marriage in Karnataka in 2011..“The Act indirectly confers validity to a child marriage and hence needs to be amended such that the provisions to make child marriage void ab initio are incorporated,” the report states..Before the amendment, child marriages could be declared null and void (from the beginning) “if the injunction (an order) prohibiting a child marriage from taking place is violated/contravened, or if the child is taken away from their lawful guardian by enticement, force or use of deceitful means, or is sold or trafficked for the purpose of marriage.”.All the rest of the child marriages were considered voidable. Voidable child marriages could back then be annulled under (Section 3 (1), PCMA, 2006). As per the act, a petition can be filed in the district court to annul the said marriage..However, even after the amendment, officials with the department say that in child marriages, where the girls have already borne children before the case was reported, the marriage still continues..Take the case of Sanjana*, a 19-year-old woman from Davangere district. She was married at the age of 14 and already has two children..Sanjana’s case came to light in 2017. Sanjana had moved to her husband’s village and had not kept in touch with her friends since she married..“My parents had also come to live with me as my husband’s family had promised to support them. My husband is one of my mother’s brothers. My friends thought that my family had moved to another place. Once, when I had gone back to my village with my children, my former teachers told me that since I was married when I was a minor, my marriage was void and I was free,” Sanjana says..Sanjana, who was initially elated, then discussed the issue with her friends. There was one major concern – the members of her village would then brand her children illegitimate and ostracise her family for the rest of their lives..“Even though the children born out of child marriages are given legitimate status according to PCMA, the mindset of people has not changed. If these girls leave their husbands and decide to do what they want with their lives, they are called prostitutes and ostracised,” says Vijaya, the DCPO of Davangere..Activists say that in even in cases where the girls have not had children, parents fear that their children will never be able to get married again due to the stigma..“When a child marriage case is reported after a year or two of it happening, which happens quite often, even though the marriages are considered void now, parents have only one concern – who will marry my daughter now? The debacle of going to the police stations, social workers paying visits to the home, make them believe that the people in their village would ostracise them. Hence, they send them to their husbands’ homes after they turn 18. There have been so many girls we have rescued who were facing a similar situation,” Vijaya says..The hurdles faced while creating awareness.According to various district child protection officers, the major hurdle is the threats they have to face from the families of the rescued girls. Officials say that in many cases where they tried to stop the weddings, the families of the victims had threatened to harm the officials..“I remember one instance two years ago. I was at the hospital for a check up. A media person informed me that at a mass marriage event, there were several children who were being married off. I immediately rushed to the spot with another official. When we tried to stop the wedding, some members of the groom’s family brought out iron rods and threatened to kill us. We had to hide behind a temple until the police arrived,” Bharati says..In another instance, an official on condition of anonymity says that the mother of a girl in Davangere had brought out a knife and held it to her throat. “She made me go outside. I immediately called the police. When the police arrived, the mother started threatening to kill herself. These kinds of instances are very common. When we try to counsel them, parents threaten to kill themselves. Sometimes we fear they may also harm their children and in such cases, the girls are lodged in the Bala Mandira,” the official adds..The awareness programmes and how they help.Senior officials like Bharati Shettar, the DCPO of Belagavi and Gadag and many others across the state have taken up the cause of creating awareness against child marriages very seriously..Apart from the usual government-run programmes where ASHA and Anganwadi workers talk to children in school about child marriages, Bharati has started a programme – Mussanje Maatu (Twilight Talks), to educate parents about ill effects of child marriages..“We have made small films about child marriages being illegal. How they are harmful for the health of girls. We showcase child marriage as a monster which is bad for children. Parents have many concerns which we address and this is done throughout the year across all villages in the two districts. In Gadag especially, this has worked. People, who used to be reluctant to tell the authorities that their neighbour or friend is marrying off their daughters when they are minors are standing up for the cause. This doesn’t mean that the battle is won – we still have a lot of work to do in order to change minds,” Bharati says..Bharati and her team are also sensitising the police, teachers and local panchayat officials regarding child marriages..“The teachers are told to notice why a certain student has stopped coming to school. Generally, parents say that they are moving to another village. The teacher is also told to find out whether there is a child marriage which could have happened. There have been times when this has helped rescue the girls,” Bharati says..Bharati says that ever since the government declared all child marriages as void, awareness programmes have also included this aspect. “This has also enabled the girls to come forward and call Childline, or talk to a teacher about the child marriage. Over the past two years, 85% of the cases came to light because the girls reported it. Compared to 2011 when 45% of the marriages in Karnataka involved children, the rate has gone down to 23%. The rates are going down but when we look at it in absolute numbers it is still very high,” she says..“Even though we are threatened on multiple occasions, it has made my resolve to tackle this problem stronger. I have been doing this since 2006 and I am not giving up,” Bharati says..*Names changes to protect identities.