How to End Child Marriage in India

Stories from the lives and work of young activists

India is home to one-third of the world’s child brides, despite decades-old laws that prohibit marriage for girls younger than 18. Child marriage cuts across many regions and religious communities in India, and it causes lasting harm: research shows that child brides are more likely to drop out of school, face abuse and, in many cases, remain stuck in poverty for the rest of their lives. So why does child marriage persist?

Many parents in India view child marriage as the key to securing their daughters’ futures, both financially and socially. Parents often have difficulty imagining futures for their daughters that extend beyond housework and childrearing, and many young women grow up believing they don’t have a right to make informed choices about their lives and bodies. Some parents marry off their daughters during their adolescent years in the hope of preventing premarital sex (and the family shame associated with it). Meanwhile, young men in India also face intense social pressure to marry—and they, too, sometimes have little say over when and to whom.

In response, a rising number of activists in India are calling for an end to child marriage—and American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is supporting local initiatives there to address the root causes of the practice and advance young people’s rights. Since 2014, AJWS has provided more than $3 million to Indian organizations working to end child marriage.

This slideshow offers a glimpse into the lives of young people trying to expand choices and opportunities for themselves and their peers in West Bengal, Maharashtra and Delhi. Together, they’re making educated decisions about their own lives and challenging assumptions about what women can and cannot do.

Sukhudi Murmur, 16, stays in the hostel at the MBBCDS school in rural West Bengal. MBBCDS successfully intervened when Sukhudi’s mother tried to get her married at age 10.
Sukhudi Murmur, 16, stays in the hostel at the MBBCDS school in rural West Bengal. MBBCDS successfully intervened when Sukhudi’s mother tried to get her married at age 10. Now, Sukhudi has more choices than her older sister, who married as a child and now has three of her own. “She is not happy at all,” Sukhudi said. “I want to go far in school. I want to become a good police officer.”
Sonali Khatun (in blue) came to MBBCDS as a teenager, after a short-lived, forced marriage to an abusive man.
Sonali Khatun (in blue) came to MBBCDS as a teenager, after a short-lived, forced marriage to an abusive man. Because divorce carries intense stigma in some areas of India, Sonali’s neighbors taunted her. Fortunately, she found the support she needed at MBBCDS to resume her studies and pursue her goals.
Sonali rides home with her friends from the MBBCDS school.
Sonali rides home with her friends from the MBBCDS school. The staff of the school encourage the girls to use bicycles—despite community disapproval—to increase their mobility and opportunities.
Sonali now teaches a co-ed preschool class for MBBCDS. She often tells her story to mothers in nearby villages, explaining how child marriage harms girls and why they need other options.
Sonali now teaches a co-ed preschool class for MBBCDS. She often tells her story to mothers in nearby villages, explaining how child marriage harms girls and why they need other options. “Slowly, I gained confidence” Sonali explains. “Now I don't have any doubt. I can do anything and work anywhere.”
In Mumbai, Awaaz-e-Niswaan counselors Saira Banu (far right) and Aisha Khun (second from right) assist a group of women.
In Mumbai, Awaaz-e-Niswaan counselors Saira Banu (far right) and Aisha Khun (second from right) assist a group of women. Formed 30 years ago to challenge laws in Muslim communities that restrict women’s rights, Awaaz now organizes gatherings for women and girls to learn how to advocate for themselves.
Yasmeen Dureshi, center, teaches a computer class to Fatima Ansari and Saima Shaikh, students at Awaaz.
Yasmeen Dureshi, center, teaches a computer class to Fatima Ansari and Saima Shaikh, students at Awaaz. The classes give girls with strict parents an excuse to leave the house. “You’re not only a teacher,” Yasmeen said. “Things that they can’t share with others, they can share here.”
Rukhsar Javed Sayyed, 18, started taking English classes at Awaaz a couple years ago. Her mother was pressuring her to get married, but Rukhsar has insisted on finishing college first
Rukhsar Javed Sayyed, 18, started taking English classes at Awaaz a couple years ago. Her mother was pressuring her to get married, but Rukhsar has insisted on finishing college first. “After learning to speak English, I got so confident,” Rukhsar said. “Now I want to stand on my own two feet, to become something.”
Some members of Awaaz choose to cover their faces and hair in public, a practice called “purdah” (the veil), which is common in conservative Muslim areas of Mumbai.
Some members of Awaaz choose to cover their faces and hair in public, a practice called “purdah” (the veil), which is common in conservative Muslim areas of Mumbai. The girls at Awaaz have mixed feelings about purdah. Some said it was a symbol of oppression, but added that the anonymity allows them to protest for women’s rights without worrying about family objections.
Nearly 100 women and girls rode through the busy streets of Mumbra in a bike rally for gender equality organized by Awaaz.
Nearly 100 women and girls rode through the busy streets of Mumbra in a bike rally for gender equality organized by Awaaz. In this conservative community on the outskirts of Mumbai, bike riding is often seen as inappropriate for women.
At Azad Foundation in Delhi, Raj Kumar Gurung trains low-income women with limited education to become professional taxi drivers.
At Azad Foundation in Delhi, Raj Kumar Gurung trains low-income women with limited education to become professional taxi drivers. Until recently, driving was an all-male profession in India. “In this society, women are stopped from doing things,” Raj said. “Boys or men, on the other hand, are encouraged to do anything they wish… Our work here at Azad Foundation is to produce fearless women drivers.”
As a professional driver, Khushi has achieved a level of confidence and financial independence that’s rare for women in her neighborhood, who are typically married by her age and limited to housework.
Khushi Prajapati, 23, used to work as a maid. She didn’t get paid much, and she often felt her employers did not treat her well. As a professional driver, Khushi has achieved a level of confidence and financial independence that’s rare for women in her neighborhood, who are typically married by her age and limited to housework.
As part of her training, Khushi learns self-defense skills. For safety’s sake, Azad drivers only transport female passengers.
As part of her training, Khushi learns self-defense skills. For safety’s sake, Azad drivers only transport female passengers. Not surprisingly, their passengers often report feeling an increased sense of security, too. Ever since a young woman was gang raped and murdered on a Delhi bus in 2012, sexual violence has been a topic of intense debate across India.
Khushi lives with her family, which now depends on her income to keep her younger siblings in school. Khushi doesn’t want to get married, a decision her family respects because they see she has a clear, albeit untraditional, plan for her life.
Khushi lives with her family, which now depends on her income to keep her younger siblings in school. Khushi doesn’t want to get married, a decision her family respects because they see she has a clear, albeit untraditional, plan for her life. Khushi hopes to buy them a house. “She has taken on responsibility for the family,” Vinood, Khushi’s father, said. “She is very intelligent, and I am really proud.”
Shital Waikar, 22, studies at home in Mavdi, a rural farming village in Maharashtra. She’s in college and works with MASUM, advocating for local solutions to child marriage.
Shital Waikar, 22, studies at home in Mavdi, a rural farming village in Maharashtra. She’s in college and works with MASUM, advocating for local solutions to child marriage. Shital’s mother, Mangal, stands in the background; she married as a teenager. “My relatives started suggesting marriage proposals for my daughters, but I was able to say firmly that they are going to study further, that we are not going to marry them,” Mangal said. “Because of MASUM, I could change my children’s lives for the better and stand behind my daughters.”
Shital teaches a sexual health session for MASUM, encouraging participants to ask questions—not a typical approach to many sex education efforts in India.
Shital teaches a sexual health session for MASUM, encouraging participants to ask questions—not a typical approach to many sex education efforts in India. By increasing young people’s knowledge of sexuality, MASUM prepares them to make healthy decisions for themselves, whether they choose to marry or not.
Vaibhav Vilas Sutar, a youth leader at MASUM, helps his mother clean and cook—tasks that many young men in India refuse to do, dismissing them as women’s work.
Vaibhav Vilas Sutar, a youth leader at MASUM, helps his mother clean and cook—tasks that many young men in India refuse to do, dismissing them as women’s work. Vaibhav has participated in MASUM from a young age.
Youth from MASUM march through Mavdi to protest against child marriage and promote gender equality.
Youth from MASUM march through Mavdi to protest against early marriage and promote gender equality. “Men should also take action for women’s rights,” Shital said. “Clearly, there is change happening … Our society differentiates between men and women, but ultimately both are human beings.”

To learn more, visit our Ending Child Marriage section to see videos, photo slideshows, stories and original research related to AJWS’s work on child marriage in India.

Text by Elizabeth Daube. Photographs by Jonathan Torgovnik.