Celebrating change makers: Kriti Bharti, founder of The Saarthi Trust, India

Kriti Bharti with school children in Rajasthan | © Cover Asia Press / Shariq Allaqaband

In Rajasthan, northern India, where child marriage rates are some of the highest in the world, social activist and rehabilitation psychologist, Kriti Bharti has a unique approach to tackling the widespread problem: child marriage annulments.

In 2011, Kriti established the Saarthi Trust to help prevent child marriage by educating girls about their rights. She also quickly became aware that something more was needed to help those girls who were already married; girls like Laxmi. Laxmi approached the Trust to ask for help when her parents told her to move out of the family home and move into her husband’s. It was Laxmi’s 18th birthday and she had been married off to her husband at the age of one. After seeing the grave injustice of the situation, Kriti vowed to help Laxmi and others like her.

Throughout 2012, Kriti worked with Laxmi and the courts to have the marriage annulled and eventually it was; the first ever child marriage annulment in India. Since then, the Saarthi Trust has annulled 31 child
marriages and prevented over 900 more.

India has the highest number of child brides in the world with UNICEF estimating that 47% of girls in India are married before the age of 18. The northern region of Rajasthan is at the epicentre of this national crisis where 65% of girls will be married off before their eighteenth birthday. India has made several pledges to ending this practice, including its commitment to the South Asian Initiative to End Violence Against Children’s (SAIEVAC) regional action plan, but driving factors including poverty, legal loopholes and patriarchy continue to obstruct these efforts. Kriti Bharti describes child marriage as a ‘dark room’ where children cannot see into their futures. Her organisation, the Saarthi Trust, is working to help children see the light.

Rehabilitation

Kriti realised that annulling a marriage was not necessarily the end of the problem. Although some girls are welcomed back by their families, others are banished from their families or communities following annulment. To tackle this, Kriti set up a rehabilitation programme to enable the former child brides to flourish. This rehabilitation takes several forms including:

  • providing shelter, food, and water
  • helping the girls further their education and to develop numeracy and literacy skills, as well as life skills
  • teaching them about empowerment and giving them vocational training
  • whenever possible, helping to reunite the girls with their families and communities, and providing psychosocial counselling to reduce trauma and stress
  • educating the parents and community members about child marriage to prevent it happening to others in the future and getting their support for annulments
  • supporting the girls as they transition into adulthood by providing them with information to help them make healthy and informed choices in the future.

Kriti’s rehabilition programme is designed to ensure that the girls are equipped to lead successful, independent lives and to speak out against child marriage so that the cycle is broken for good. Many of the girls that have been rehabilitated have gone on to finish their education and pursue careers in medicine and engineering. Some have even continued working with Kriti to help rehabilitate other former child brides.

Linking cure with prevention: creating sustainable change

By annulling child marriage and teaching former child brides and their families about other options, Kriti is changing social norms for the better. When community members and families see how much happier and prosperous girls are without child marriage they recognise their value to the community. Kriti calls this ‘the chain of child marriage’. She knows she can’t achieve this change alone so she is sharing her practices and ideas with civil society organisations and others throughout India. She has even been asked to deliver training to police and administration officers in Rajasthan and hopes that they will also now work to prevent and annul child marriages and help to rehabilitate child brides.

“Thanks to our efforts, child marriages which were formalised years ago are being annulled and simultaneously communities are developing an understanding that child marriage limits a child’s present and future prospects.” – Kriti

Challenges but success

Kriti’s unique activism is creating lasting change in many girl’s lives in Rajasthan. However, she has faced criticism, resistance and even death threats, showing just how deeply entrenched the roots of child marriage are in Rajasthan. Despite these challenges, Kriti is continuing to reach as many girls as she can. As a testament to her achievements, Kriti the story of Kriti’s first annulment is published in Indian school books as an example of how to change social norms for the good and word of it has not only spread throughout India but also the world.

Known to those around her as a courageous, determined and creative woman who is giving new vision and life to hundreds of girls and creating lasting change, Kriti is being honoured as a change-maker in the run up to International Day of the Girl for her inspiring work as part of Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage.

© Cover Asia Press / Shariq Allaqaband