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COLUMN ONE : Not too young to say ‘I don’t’ : More girls in India are resisting early marriage.

Her fate was all but sealed, the wedding bells ringing in her relatives’ heads. Then the bride-to-be, a little girl playing in the dirt in this impoverished village, plucked up her courage and said, “I do not.”

Roshan Bairwa, then 14, joined a growing number of girls defying the centuries-old tradition of child marriage in a country where nearly half of all women are married before their 18th birthday.

The British Raj tried to stamp it out. Mohandas Gandhi, himself a child groom, campaigned against it. The United Nations has condemned it. And in 2006, the Indian government explicitly banned it.

But child marriage remains pervasive in India, accounting for one-third of such unions worldwide and underscoring the contradictions and complexities of a society that produces cutting-edge engineers even as it clings to feudal traditions.

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“These girls are very brave,” said Sarita Singh, secretary of the Rajasthan state Department of Child and Women Development. “There are enormous social forces working against them.”

Roshan, with quick eyes, a nose stud and purple flip-flops, doesn’t consider herself particularly brave. All she knows is the dread she felt three years ago when her grandmother told her matter-of-factly that some people were coming to finalize her wedding arrangements in a ceremony known as a saadibiba, a traditional meeting of future in-laws.

“If I married, the doors would close,” Roshan, now 17, said as she perched on a charpai, a string cot.

It wasn’t that hard to convince her grandparents, who helped raise her after her father died when she was 3 and her mother abandoned her. But her aunt and uncle, who had found the boy groom in a village 30 miles away, were another matter.

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Roshan said they viewed her early marriage as only proper, and also knew that it would mean one less mouth to feed. The battle lasted a good two weeks, with several meetings and much yelling. Eventually they were brought around by the promise that she might receive a government wedding subsidy if she waited until she was 18.

“I was scared when I thought about refusing, but very relieved after I did,” Roshan, now in the 10th grade, said as a water buffalo bellowed nearby. “I want to study, which wouldn’t happen if I married young.”

Activists and social workers cite new momentum behind their effort to curtail the practice. They’re organizing “wait till you’re 18" parades, eliciting pledges, presenting puppet shows and lobbying holy men to stop officiating at underage marriages.

With the encouragement of Shiv Shiksha Samiti, a charity that promotes women’s rights and social development, Roshan and 22 other girls meet and perform skits that encourage girls to safeguard their future. And when they hear about girls who are being pushed to marry, they lobby the parents to delay the wedding.

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The group said eight child marriages in a 25-village radius have recently been shelved. Although that’s a fraction of the 150 that went ahead, it’s a big break with the past. Increasingly, those who resist are gaining notice.

A few months ago, Rekha Kalindi, a 14-year-old who lives in the northeastern state of Bihar, was invited to meet Pratibha Patil, India’s first female president, after Rekha refused to be married.

“They become little agents of change, although the numbers are still shockingly high,” said Sarah Crowe, spokeswoman for UNICEF in New Delhi.

The physical costs of underage marriage are enormous: Girls who have babies before they’re 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than those in their 20s.

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Then there’s the emotional toll. At the Women’s Hospital in Jaipur, in Rajasthan, a crowd of young women, a riot of red, orange and pink saris, gathers to see a doctor in a region where women’s healthcare is limited.

“They’re often not psychologically prepared to be mothers because they’re children themselves,” said Adarsh Bhargav, head of the gynecology department. “Many are irritated by their newborn’s crying. There’s no attachment.”

The best way to raise marriage ages is education, activists said. But most girls in rural areas must travel some distance to attend middle school, and parents often hold them back, fearing that their daughters could be raped, sexually harassed or even just heckled, which can be enough for a groom’s family to break off the engagement and ruin her reputation.

“Sexual purity is hugely valued,” said Pinki Solanki, a consultant who did a report on girls who reject early marriage for the Vishakha Mehrangarh Foundation in Jodhpur. “As soon as menstruation starts, a girl’s control over her own life drops off rapidly.”

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Child marriage in India dates back at least 2,000 years, said Sambodh Goswami, a historian at Jaipur’s Sant Jayacharya Girls’ College. Hindu teachings tout the virtues of marrying off daughters before their thoughts become impure. In Rajasthan, the Rajputs, members of a warrior caste, were said to marry off their pre-pubescent daughters to protect them from invaders, who were thought to be less inclined to abscond with married women.

“The Rajput kingdom is long gone,” said Francesca Barolo, a manager with Mamta, a New Delhi-based charity focused on healthcare for women and children. “But child marriages continue.”

Economics is a factor. Children who leave school to marry potentially start earning immediately. The groom’s family also reaps a windfall from the dowry, by tradition paid by the girl’s family and among life’s biggest expenses.

Child marriage is often defended on the basis of tradition, but ultimately it’s about male domination, some activists argue.

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“There’s a real view that women are someone’s property,” said Barolo, and some mothers-in-law compare their selection of a bride to the buying and selling of cattle.

Those trying to change this system can find themselves under attack, one reason activists tend to cite the damage to girls’ health and future earnings rather than combat the practice head-on. In 1992, Bhanwari Devi, a village woman working for a nonprofit group, was gang-raped after she tried to prevent a child marriage. The accused men were acquitted on the grounds that “upper caste men, including a Brahmin, would not rape a woman of a lower caste,” according to the court ruling. The decision has been appealed.

The 2006 law sets the legal age for marriage as 18 for women and 21 for men, explicitly prohibits child marriage, provides for punishment of adults who arrange them and for annulment of such unions. But the law has had limited effect, women’s rights groups say.

It has, however, spurred evasive tactics. Families that used to marry their children en masse on Akha teej, an auspicious date in April or May, now wed them as soon as possible to avoid attracting notice. Counterfeit birth certificates, which cost about $3, are in hot demand. And wedding parties tend to be hidden behind compound walls.

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“It’s driving things underground,” said Ratna Gaikwad, Mamta’s program manager in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan.

Unclear laws don’t help. Although getting married to a minor is unlawful, remaining married to one, by some interpretations, is not. And raping a wife is not considered a crime if she is older than 15.

On the enforcement front, activists charge that local police are often corrupt, tend to share elders’ social values and frequently feel that chasing down child brides is beneath them.

“The cops usually inform the family in advance they’re going to raid,” said Kathmana, who uses only one name, with the charity Shiv Shiksha Samiti. “So the family shifts the wedding by a day or two.”

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A few miles from Roshan’s village, 45-year-old farmer Ramdev is pleased, having recently married off his daughter, Manisha. She’s 8, now the wife of a 10-year-old. It will be a few years before she moves into her husband’s house, a ceremony called the gauna, but her parents have already restricted her movement and limited her playtime.

“I know the government says we should marry at 18,” Ramdev, who uses one name, said as a camel pulled a cart slowly past their dirt house. “But even at 12 or 15, it’s difficult to keep a girl’s honor. And by 18, if unmarried, they get crazy thoughts.”

Back in Mohammad Nagar Dhani, Roshan belts out a song with three so-far-unmarried friends. “I want my rights, the right to be a child, to dance, sing and be healthy,” they croon in a one-room “girls’ center” built by Shiv Shiksha Samiti and decorated with posters touting the merits of delaying marriage.

Roshan’s brave stance, combined with her good grades and hopes of becoming a teacher, has led even some among the village’s old guard to concede that she may be on to something, especially if she eventually finds work that earns more than farming.

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“I think what she’s doing is right. She’ll have more opportunity than we ever did,” said village elder Rameshwar Berwa, wearing a multicolored turban. “That said, I disagree with their challenging us. If I’d even thought of such a thing as a kid, I’d have been whacked like you wouldn’t believe.”

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

Anshul Rana of The Times’ New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.

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