Pushpa was 11 years old when she woke up one morning and found out she was going to a wedding that day: hers. Her parents and relatives had arranged for her to marry her first cousin, an aunt's son. He was 25.
In rural villages in India, marriages like Pushpa's are not uncommon. Relatives—even very young ones—are sometimes required to marry to keep property in the family or for other reasons. For young girls forced into early marriage, it's terrifying.
"I didn't know what marriage was," says Pushpa. "I was sad, because he was 25. I went to live with him at my in-laws'."
"It was embarrassing. After 10 days of marriage, I ran away."
The 11-year-old had somewhere to run to: a school supported by Catholic Relief Services and our partner, the Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation (MVF). Pushpa had gone to the school in the past, and knew she would be safe.
Pushpa's parents talked with her in-laws and the family agreed to let her leave the marriage. But "if there were no MVF," says Pushpa, now 19, "I'd still be there."
'I Would Rather Die'
Pushpa continued to attend the MVF school, called a "bridge" school because it helps children who have missed out on classes catch up so they can transition back to public schools. Such schools are crucial in villages like Pushpa's, where many children leave school early for work or marriage. With intervention, children ages 10 to 16 can return to school instead of working long hours on the region's cotton farms or tending livestock.
Near Pushpa's village in southern India, other girls face similar situations. "My father used to do road work. He died when I was 10, and so I dropped out to work," says 18-year-old Sunita. "Some of my friends were married when they were 10. I would rather die."
Sunita didn't marry, but she worked in the fields until she was 13, picking cotton and weeding tomato crops for about 70 cents a day. Then a policeman told her about the bridge school.
"I went back to school," says Sunita, displaying her textbooks with a wide smile. "Thanks to MVF, we can continue our studies. Without MVF, I would have been married by now and had children."
Releasing Children From Bondage
In Sunita's village, impoverished parents sometimes enter their children into bonded labor agreements with wealthier landowners. The child's parents are often paid what to them is a large sum up front—for example $80—for a year's worth of their child's labor. Ten-year-old boys may be bonded to tend cattle or wash dishes in roadside eateries. Girls the same age may be bonded to pick cotton or take care of their employer's children.
MVF helps community leaders approach employers and negotiate ways that such contracts can be annulled. The foundation also works to prevent child marriages, which were outlawed in 1978 but are still very common.
"There was a wedding planned for a 13-year-old girl," Sunita remembers. "The girl's family paid thousands of rupees to the groom's family. But MVF stopped the marriage."
MVF also creates child protection forums in villages where children often drop out. The forums are made up of village residents trained to convince employers, parents and children of education's benefits. One forum member, for example, walks around his neighborhood looking for children who are not in school.
When persuading employers or parents to let children return to school, forum members try never to take no for an answer. "I went to some parents about their 10-year-old boy," says a village elder. "They tried to push me out. I kept going back to the parents to convince them, and eventually I succeeded."
Sometimes the ones who need persuading are the children. "I dropped out of school when I was 10," says Ramalu, a teenager in the village of Indravelly in south India. "I used to work on my parents' farm. I wasn't interested in school at all."
"But MVF pestered me for two years to go back, and so I did," he continues. "Now I feel motivated and I want to study more. I am studying and I hope to be a medical lab technician."
Unlike Ramalu, most children don't work on their own family's land. When children leave school early, most end up working in someone else's fields for pennies a day, and for the rest of their lives. By giving young people an education and more career options, the MVF program breaks this cycle of lifelong tenant-farmer poverty.
Schools for At-Risk Children
In addition to the bridge schools for children over 10, the project also educates younger children from tribal communities, groups who face discrimination under India's illegal but still-present caste system. In these remote villages, children under age 10 learn math, science and reading, and also learn about hygiene and germs. "It was difficult to encourage people to send their kids to school," says a teacher at one tribal school. But they managed it, and the school is now attended by dozens of boys and girls.
With funding from the Vista Hermosa Foundation, the CRS-MVF project has educated thousands of children who would otherwise be forced into child labor or marriage. Eighteen-year-old Rajeswari dropped out but returned to school through MVF. Because of her degree, she now works as a nurse at a hospital for people with leprosy. Though the work is part-time, she earns more money than she would picking cotton all day long. "You have to have completed a certain level of school to get this job," she says. "If I hadn't gone back to school, there would have been no chance I could get this job."
Sunita's widowed mother Saroja, who has spent most of her life working in other people's fields, hopes her daughter will have more options too. "If she studies, her life will be better. She won't be dependent on others," says Saroja. "I don't want her to suffer the way I have suffered."
Pushpa echoes this. With the pain of her child marriage behind her, she is now working on a degree in economics. If she has children, Pushpa says, "I want to guide my daughters to be educated, so they can choose their lives."
Laura Sheahen is CRS' regional information officer for Asia. She is based in Cambodia.