Monday, August 2, 2021

In Conversation with Dr. Kriti Bharti – India’s First Child Marriage Annuler

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Dr. Kriti Bharti is a woman of grit and grace who is on a mission to make a difference. There is sweetness in her voice, warmth in her smile, and love in her soul. She reflects her empathy through her work and is one of the greatest gifts India can ever have.

She is a Rehabilitation Psychologist, a Social Activist, and a Change Maker from Rajasthan. She’s the Managing Trustee of her NGO Saarthi Trust founded in 2011, Member of International Advisory Group of NI3 of the U.K, Speaker, a Researcher, and a Trainer. She is India’s First Child Marriage Annuler.

Dr. Bharti holds a place in the Limca Book of Records in 2012, is included in the First Hundred Inspirational Woman by BCC Hindi, she has won the International Role Model by Pixel Project 2013, National Youth Icon Award 2018 and more.

In this Exclusive Interview with Icy Tales, she shares her journey, approaches taken to prevent child marriages, the current situation of India in terms of exploitation.

A Glimpse of Her Early Life

I started working in NGO’s at the age of 17. Here is why. My father abandoned me before my birth. Three decades ago, the mindset of people was not the way it is now. The notion of a ‘single mother’ did not exist back then.

I was regarded as a sign of bad fortune before my birth. Due to immense pressure, my mother went into psychological trauma and other physical conditions too. There was a time when the doctors told that they will not be able to save the child but will save the mother.

After a few dramatic scenes, I was finally born in the seventh month in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. Right from my birth, my mother and I were abused because my birth was against the wishes of my family members. I was dragged into the black hole of abuse ever since. I had no one to talk to, I was mentally and physically abused.

Struggling Teenage Years

I was poisoned at the age of 10. I was bed-ridden for over 2 years. I couldn’t walk, stand, or sit. My entire body was numb. My mother tried Homeopathy, Allopathy, Ayurvedic, and every other medication, but none of them worked. One fine day, she came across Reiki Treatment; a holistic and natural therapy to heal the mind and body.

So, after 9 months of treatment, I could finally move. I still remember my first step. It was at 12 I learned all over again to walk from the beginning. At that age, I took a groundbreaking step that is I changed my surname to “Bharti.” I do not want to be labeled on the basis of my caste. Bharti can also be regarded as “Bharath ki Beti.”

In Conversation with Dr. Kriti Bharti - India's First Child Marriage Annuler 1
Dr. Kriti Bharti

At that moment, I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t think of anything, but it was all I wanted to do and I did it. But, I was frustrated, I lost hope in life, the question of ‘why me’ always chased me.

Following that, for over 2 years I traveled to different cities and conducted Reiki Camps and was even the head of the department of the Reiki therapy. Maybe, we would have been talking about that today if I had continued that.

On Continuing Education after the Break

Eventually, my mom came, took me back, and convinced me to continue my studies. I was in grade four before the treatment. But, now I was made to sit in tenth grade. It was a huge leap. My basics weren’t right; in addition to that, my past was haunting me. I had lost interest in studying due to the gap.

I managed to clear my boards, and tears of happiness trickled down my cheeks when my results were out. It was a major accomplishment after going through endless struggles. Later, I opted for psychology in college. I joined various NGO’s and started counseling parallelly. My first case was a 9-year-old rape victim. That moment,

I felt it was pointless to provide momentary relief by counseling her for two hours. I wanted to provide permanent freedom and change her life.

This incident took me to the justice system. So, from counseling, I made it to the justice system. Thus, I emphasize these two things: justice and rehabilitation. Though I’ve received several death threats, I believe in being optimistic which keeps me going.

Incremental Approach to Nullify Child Marriages

I was previously a part of various NGO’s before establishing Saarthi Trust, and one thing I noticed in all of these organizations was that they were just spreading awareness. Well, it is essential to create awareness to an extent, but that won’t help the victims come out of the grave situation.

I wanted to work at the grassroots level and help the victims come out of the condition, help them see a new life, and mark a new beginning. That’s when I founded Saarthi Trust. I did not have a ‘Kriti’ to save me back then but now I’m glad to be saving young children from the misery.

My approach is simple.

To narrow it down, we prevent, annul, rehabilitate, and spread awareness. “Dushman ko maarna hai tho, chaaron tharaf se gherna hota hai”

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Oath Taking Ceremony

  • Our main aim is to prevent child marriages. When we get to know such cases, we immediately go and stop the marriage from taking place.
  • If we get to know child marriage cases at a later stage, we take it to the courts to annul the marriage.
  • Once the annulment is done, we rehabilitate the victims. Not all families accept their children once the marriage is annulled due to their conservative nature.
  • We conduct Orientation Camps where we host several events for a day or two in a month by residing in affected villages and shed light on the consequences of child marriage. In addition to that, we conduct Oath Taking Ceremonies where we make them pledge that they themselves won’t perform child marriages and also support other victims if they see one.

Number of Child Marriages Annulled Till Date

So far, we have annulled 40 child marriages and prevented 1400 of them. I know there’s a large gap between the numbers, but 40 is the highest to date in India. Right now, we are the only organization that is canceling child marriages in India.

Currently, the annulment is limited to Rajasthan, but we wish to extend our support across India in the near future. However, we have been actively preventing child marriages in Rajasthan, West Bengal, Jharkhand, and Bihar.

Apart from these two initiatives, we have rehabilitated 6500 children under various child protection issues like child labor, sexual offenses, and more. Around 6000 women and specially-abled are rehabilitated too. We have also involved people in oath-taking ceremonies and have presented 20000 oaths so far.

The Mindset of People after a Decade

After almost a decade of striving to bring in positive changes, people today are aware of the consequences of child marriage. Most importantly, young girls have begun to raise voice against this unlawful practice.

Earlier, girls were not aware of the way to come out of the grave situation, but now they themselves have understood the exploitation and know there is an approach to escape the darkness.

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Dr. Kriti with Children

Though there’s a lot to be done, I feel contented when I see the innocent-eyed girls’ smile brimming with joy every time I bring them out of the situation. I’m elated as I have given them a new golden life, a second opportunity to breath and live with no abuse or exploitation.

We reach out to them through media. Like how a smile is infectious, the media is too. When a girl’s marriage is annulled, it gets published in the local newspaper. When other girls read it, and find their story is similar to that, they feel why can’t I come out of this situation when other girls can.

Now people understand it’s wrong.
People talk about it.
People raise voice against it. Be it a child or an adult.

We are trying our best to reach out to people in every nook and corner of the rural areas because there are people who have no idea about this.

In fact, they don’t know that marriages can be canceled legally by heading to the court. Children come up to me and be like, “mein kyun isme rahoon, mein kyun sahoon.

Approaches Adopted to Change the Mindsets

Local Media

One way, we are changing mindsets is through local media. When the news of a child marriage annulment is published in the local newspapers, others read it and then understand that child marriage is illegal.

Some people regret after facing a tough time by being in the marriages but wouldn’t know how to come out of the situation, so through media, they find out there is a remedial approach to it, and that it can be resolved.

Orientation camps

Like I mentioned earlier, we conduct orientation camps in different villages. We reside in the rural areas for a day or two and engage people. We perform a stage play on the negative effects of child marriages, on how they are ruining their child’s future, educate them about the laws, and narrate stories of the survivors.

In Conversation with Dr. Kriti Bharti - India's First Child Marriage Annuler 2
Dr. Kriti orienting the children

In fact, we bring in the girls themselves who have come out of the situation to narrate their stories as it adds a sense of credibility among the people. We emphasize on the laws as people don’t know most of it at all. They just have a basic understanding of the legislation or zero-knowledge, so we spend an entire day in the villages. As they have no idea that what they’re doing is wrong.

Social Media

Ever since technology became a large part of our lives, social media is the go-to for everything. So, we are spreading the latest news actively through all our social media handles and trying our best to reach every single people.

Situation in India

There are plenty of cultural malpractices taking place every day in India. If you’re not empowered, then you drown into a bottomless well which will be very difficult to come out of. Therefore, a female needs to be educated, independent, and fearless.

A woman should be financially independent and should be strong enough to make her own decisions. It’s important to know what is right and wrong. It’s necessary to understand when they have to ‘adjust’ and when they have to ‘raise their voice.’

The Reason Why Child Marriages are Still Widespread

There’s something called Jati Panchayat in Rajasthan or as they say Khap Panchayats in Haryana. They are not legal bodies. Sarpanch is the eldest one of the community, there is no minimum qualification to be the head. Their age is the qualification.

Now, this body is one of the biggest and the main barriers to why child marriage is still existing in the 21st century. This body punishes people who disagree with child marriages and tell them they’re going against the age-old tradition and society.

They penalize the families with enormous amounts of up to 10-20 Lakhs without taking into account the family’s income state. Along with this, they distance them entirely from society. The families are prevented from buying even the daily essentials.

It’s like they freeze the family from all corners and all resources. It gets terrible, and due to this fear, child marriages are prevailing even after 100 years of coming up with a law.

Jati Panchayat’s Influence on Victim’s Family

When we try and talk to the Jati Panch, they tell us they know child marriages are illegal and that they have been telling the same to girls’ families too. But, soon after that, they pressurize the parents off our backs.

When a case comes up and if that is annulled, they would tell the parents to get their child married to someone else if not this. We counsel the parents; it’s a part of our rehabilitation program because education is of utmost importance as it will be hard to breathe in such conditions.

But, due to the Jati Panch’s influence, parents withdraw their support and leave the child. There were times when the parents supported us initially, but due to the pressure, they backed out fearing the consequences.

The Jati Panch manipulates the family’s mind and pours it with negativity so they don’t come to us. Therefore, we try to end the cases as soon as possible because it should not be like; in a justice system, you are receiving injustice.

Annulment during Akha Teej

Akha Teej, an auspicious day to start new endeavors falls in the month of April. That’s when most of the child marriages take place. In fact, people in Rajasthan, tag this month as the ‘child marriage’ month.

So, I thought why to ruin such an auspicious month by doing unlawful activities and that’s when we took a different route and annulled a marriage during the month of Akha Teej. We went on to annul two more marriages in the subsequent years during that month and that went into the Limca Book of Records.

Driving Force behind Annulment

Generally, parents get their girl child married when they are merely one year old. As soon as they hit puberty, the girls are sent to their husband’s house. During one such incident, when the girl was being sent to her ‘Sasural,'(in-laws house) she came up to me and told me to stop it as she did not want to go. That was my first case.

People told me to get her divorced. But, divorce is whole another social stigma and in states like Rajasthan, the women are treated terribly if she is divorced.

In Conversation with Dr. Kriti Bharti - India's First Child Marriage Annuler 3
Dr. Kriti Bharti with Children

I didn’t want to entrap the girl again for the rest of her life. I wanted to bring back her dignity. After a lot of research, I came across the term annulment and understood it was possible.

When someone doesn’t agree to the marriage in the first place, then why put the marriage tag

on her, so annulment was the only way out of it. But, I had no idea about it because no one had ever canceled a marriage before. After a few failures and successes, the first child marriage annulment took place in India.

Apart from prevention, now people were aware that one could cancel their marriages too. The CBSE Board included this in their Curriculum too. Not only are we annulling the marriages, but we are also the fastest to annul a marriage in 3 days.

On How she Feeds Positivity amidst Tough Times

Technology has evolved drastically over the years, but people’s mindset has not, which is why there were/are times in my life where I was/am, subjected to attacks and threats on my life. Even If I die today, I would be glad that I’ve given life to several people.

I’ve experienced near death when I was supposed to be playing around. So, these things don’t matter to me much. In fact, no one is immortal. They have to die one day. I feel I was born for a purpose, and the Almighty is protecting me until I fulfill the duty of saving innocent hearts.

There were times when I was mentally disturbed and went into depression. My only companion that kept me sane during those rainy days was dance. In fact, I am a born dancer. I performed on national stages too in my childhood. Even today, I dance to let go of the negativity. It is a form of therapy.

It heals me from the pain and helps me see life beyond negativity. In addition to dance, music cheers me up too. Dance and music have always been a part of my life and will always be. Both are my happy pill, my soul, and my biggest strength.

“Kabhi kabhi lagta hai ki bure din ka bhar zyada hai ya mera bhar zyada hai”

There will be hurricanes in our lives, and also sunshine. We have to be fearless and deal with it calmly. Our mind is our greatest enemy. We should learn to channelize it to positive aspects more.

Lockdown and Exploitation against Women and Children

Due to the lockdown, the attention was turned to the virus. It is one of the main reasons why the number of child marriage cases increased. As it is, people get their child married in a hush-hush ceremony, and lockdown proved to be a great advantage to them. Also, since Akah Teej falls in April, it was a boon to them.

There is an increase in the number of domestic violence mainly because, from a very long time in India, all the abuse is to the weaker section of the society. Say, for example, you’re annoyed at your boss, do you go rant at him? No right. All the frustration is taken out to the weaker section of people(spouse, children, or sibling). It’s natural.

We never gather the guts to raise our voice to someone above us. You do not yell at your boss, parents, and elderly but yell at your siblings. Sadly, the ‘weaker section’ tag is only for women and children. It’s like, the more people keeping stressing on a subject, the more we actually start believing it.

Adjustment Vs Raising of Voice

We have been constantly told that women are the weaker section a million times, and now that’s what we’ve become. How can someone tag a woman weak who goes through intense pain every single month and the one who gives birth to a new life? Women and children need to be empowered.

They should know to differentiate and be decisive at all times. Whether it’s a male or female, one should understand when to ‘adjust’ and when to ‘raise the voice. In a bunch of cases that I’ve come across, I see women adjust when they should have raised their voices but raise their voices when they should have adjusted.

Every woman should set a boundary like a ‘Lakshman Rekha,’ and if that line is crossed, it means she has to raise her voice.

The prime issue here is that women have learned to adjust. If she would have raised her voice in the very beginning, it wouldn’t have escalated. So, here it’s adjustment Vs raising of the voice.

This aspect is not taught or made us understood in schools, but what we are taught is as females, we need to adjust at all times. If this one thing is understood, then we don’t have to adjust during the wrong times.

What Women need Today

In Conversation with Dr. Kriti Bharti - India's First Child Marriage Annuler 4
Dr. Kriti Bharti

Every female should learn to be financially dependent. If you don’t want to go outside, or if you’re not allowed to go outside, then you can always earn at home. Whether it is sewing, writing, or anything online.

Based on the comfort level or the family structure, one can find ways to be independent. But, its necessary to be financially, mentally, or physically powerful and independent for a woman.

Key Things Lacking in Society

The approach is missing. The definition of equality itself is wrong. We are born with a fear of gender. We are told that as females, we should not be doing ‘this’, we should be behaving in a particular way.

So, that’s when the abuse starts. Because of the fear of gender, issues like sexual abuse, domestic violence, and child marriages take place. We should work on the upbringing mainly.

Vision for the Future

Till now, we have annulled 40 marriages so in the near future we are aiming to reach 50. I’m planning to build a shelter home for girls. Though shelters are there right now, we are lacking the resources. I want to build a bigger and better one.

Another thing is to start a rehabilitation center for orphans and specially-abled children. All these need monetary support and we have almost zero supporters. People come and tell me that you’re doing a great job, but none of them are ready to lend a hand.

We have girls who are in 10th grade, pursuing Medical, engineering, and B.Ed. They have different expenses but zero sponsors. Well, I’m a psychologist, I earn by conducting sessions and use that money to provide the resources.

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  1. Such an inspiring life story. Dr. Kriti is a strong woman and every girl should be like her. Amazing.❤ and beautifully written too👌


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