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India tackles child marriages

New legal efforts try to curb a practice rooted in the daily realities of the poor.

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Shanta was only 13 when her parents forced her to leave school and married her to a man twice her age. At 15, while most of her peers were in school, she gave birth. Now 17 and emaciated, Shanta is back in her parent's home after her marriage collapsed: Her husband is in prison for a serious crime that Shanta didn't want to reveal, just as she didn't want to reveal her real name.

"I didn't even understand what marriage meant at 13," she says, her eyes brimming with tears, as her 2-year-old lolls in the background. Shanta hadn't even seen her husband, let alone known him, before she tied the nuptial knot.

More than one-third of all brides in India are below the age of 18, an estimate that activists say could be low, as many marriages - both child and adult - seldom get registered. A Supreme Court decision in February now compels couples to register. Nevertheless, this month, on Akshaya Tritiya, an auspicious festival for Hindus, child marriages were reported to have been solemnized in parts of the country, under the nose of police and despite a 1929 law that sets the legal age of marriage at 18 for girls and 21 for boys.

Child-welfare activists are pushing for tougher legislation and enforcement. But it's an uphill battle in a nation where much of the population is rural or poor, and the societal values are shaped by sparse resources, limited opportunities for women, and family traditions that are slower to change than those in India's more cosmopolitan urban centers.

"It has been a well-accepted social norm for centuries," says Anjali Bapat, a volunteer working with Swadhar, a nongovernmental organization dealing with underprivileged children and women in Pune. The city is known more for its high-tech parks, malls, and multiplexes, but it also is home to Shanta and other residents of the Chaitraban slum.

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