Santa Devi Meghwal was only 11 months old she was married off to a 9-year-old boy from a neighboring village in the desert state of Rajasthan, where rates of child weddings have long been high. Here she is seen breaking down in an interview with foreign media in August 2015, at the age of 20, as she reflected on the ordeals she faced as a child bride. (Photo by Money Sharma/AFP)
Rajni Devi was just 14 when her parents decided to marry her off to a 30-year-old in their remote village in the Jammu region of northern India. She became pregnant two months after the marriage.
She remembers vividly how she was suddenly asked to drop her studies and prepare for marriage when she was still in the eighth grade.
"They didn't ask me if I wanted to get married or continue with my studies. I didn't matter at all," Devi told ucanews.com.
The now 25-year-old mother of two recalls that in the first year of marriage, when she was barely 15, she gave birth to a baby boy.
However, during her second trimester, she developed complications including low blood pressure, thyroid issues, and high blood sugar.
"My first child was underweight and had to be put in intensive care for 15 days. It was a miracle that we both survived. The doctors told my family it was a life or death situation," said Devi, who hails from Bishah village in Jammu.
Unfortunately, hers is not an isolated case. Teenage pregnancies and the culture of taking a child bride are both still rampant in India.
UNICEF estimates 27 percent Indian women wed before they reach the age of 18, and at least seven percent are married by 15.
The U.N. agency released a report in April showing that over 20 percent of the world's adolescent population lives, and that the country has the highest rate of child marriages in South Asia.
India's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), in its latest report, asked the government to enact laws to end teen marriages, saying they endanger the lives of young women and effectively cripple their future.
The report, which the commission submitted to the Ministry of Women and Child Development in September, noted that a third of married females in India aged 13 to 19 had their first child when they were in their teenage years.
Ambuj Sharma, the secretary-general of the commission who helped author the Sept. 11 report, said the government must make education free and compulsory for all girls until they reach the age of 18 so they are armed with skills and life knowledge to fend for and support themselves.
The government now offers free education to girls up to the age of 14.
According to the National Health Profile 2018, the child marriage rate stands at 16 percent or higher in Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan.
Socio-religious considerations are the main factors supporting this trend, said Abid Ahmad, a research scholar in sociology at the University of Kashmir. The custom is more prevalent in villages, he said.
"Most families in villages consider girls a burden and look to relieve themselves of this by marrying them off young," Ahmad said.
Village societies, usually dominated by Hindus or Muslims, encourage girls to marry soon after they reach puberty to prevent them from engaging in any behavior that could put shame on their families, he said.
Ankita Mukhergee, a New Delhi-based women's rights activist, drew attention to a Supreme Court judgment in 2017 that equated having sex with a girl under 18 to rape.
However, even this law has done nothing to stunt teen marriages or pregnancies, she said.
The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 also sets a minimum age for women to get married at 18, and 21 for men.
"The government isn't enforcing the spirit of the law," Mukhergee said, adding that the authorities appear reluctant to champion any such policy that could potentially alienate voters in India's strongly patriarchal society.
Health experts and rights' groups claim teen pregnancies pose the biggest health risk to girls and young women in the country.
Research shows that just over half of all teen pregnancies in India involve complications such as babies being born prematurely, mothers developing anemia, or the membrane being ruptured during delivery, said Gazala Yasmin from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Gandhi Medical College in Bhopal in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
Many of the babies are born underweight or are stillborn, the research carried out last year indicated.
Sakshi Sinha, a gynecologist in the capital, said girls can reproduce from the age of 13 but it is considered too much of a risk to encourage pregnancy at so young an age.
"Teen or adolescent marriages degrade the health of both the woman and the baby. The government needs to introduce a comprehensive policy to ban this practice," she said.