‘If we do nothing, the girls will be punished’: forced marriage campaigner

It’s a bureaucratic nightmare which is tearing people apart, as married women in south-east India, who have been threatened with rape, are forced to undergo amends certificates to get their marriage annulled

Sara Dacre’s attempts to get her own marriage annulled have made international headlines. The 28-year-old is the co-founder of the Year to Stop Marriages, and heads the Delhi chapter of the Liberty Fund, which helps child brides and trafficked girls. Since women are required to undergo amends certificates to end their marriage in India, she’s pursued legal documents in eight Indian cities. The proposal is expected to be introduced this year, after parliament softened a colonial-era law to allow NGOs to offer legal help to those marrying older men who fear for their lives.

Dacre and her team – which include an immigration lawyer, a lawyer and a psychologist, as well as her own help – walk families through the process. “Although the spouses might want to pay any bride price or even get married in good faith … [because] of the risk to their children, the families are willing to entertain any legality that is provided by us,” she said.

No one knows for sure how many women are forced into marriages each year. Dacre admits the estimates vary. Some, she says, estimate between 30,000 and 100,000 a year in Delhi alone.

“I can safely say there are thousands of young girls who are getting married against their will because they do not know what is happening in their country, or the state of the world,” Dacre says.

This month, Indian lawmakers passed a bill that would allow girls younger than 18 to end their arranged marriages and get divorced or annulled. Still, only 10 MPs are prepared to sponsor it.

Human rights campaigner Partha Chatterjee calls the bill “as good as dead”.

“I’m not surprised,” Dacre said. “I still cannot understand why this bill passed, or why there is a shortage of sponsors who are prepared to sponsor this.”

One issue preventing it from passing is the current age limit of 21.

Dacre said since 2013, she’s seen “thousands” of cases where a bride has been trafficked from their village to a remote place where she’s tied up, raped, beaten and forced to work long hours.

“At least 50% of the girls come and ask to be released, but are too afraid to go out at night. The families will go and visit their husbands to see what has happened to them, and then they will go out and be attacked.”

“These girls have spent their entire youth in a life of struggle. Having spent years in bondage with someone else they can never truly be free,” Dacre said.

She says she’s seen children just a few months old brought to India’s capital – often raped by their parents and their husbands – or abused in their villages.

“Most of the children are too scared to leave the house and have no education,” she said. “Children will never know the happiness that they truly deserve.”

Dacre’s own story of tragedy started 12 years ago when she returned from a one-week holiday to realise her husband, who she was in love with, was already married to another woman. After two years she divorced him. She no longer supports him financially, but he refuses to pay child support.

“He lives in a village where children are not safe, but I will not go back home until he returns.”

“I’m only 26 years old, but for me, I will never be free,” she said. “If the children get separated from their parents, it will be me or myself who must face the consequences.”

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