Why This Child Bride Needs Good Grades: #15Girls

Oct 26, 2015
Originally published on November 9, 2015 11:58 am

Nimmu is 15 years old. She comes from a rural village in northern India, and she's been married since she was 10.

This year she's trying to change her fate.

In Nimmu's village, when you're married young, you don't move in with your husband right away. You stay with your own parents until around your 15th birthday. That's when they send you to your in-laws.

From what Nimmu has seen, you basically lose your freedom at that point. The in-laws assign whatever chores they see fit. And you're expected to follow their orders without question or complaint.

Right now only one thing is keeping Nimmu from that life: She's at a boarding school in the city of Jodhpur. It's run by a charity called the Veerni Institute. Nimmu's in-laws have been urging her father to hand her over, but her father has agreed to hold off the in-laws and let her stay at the school as long as she gets good grades.

It's a lot of pressure. "Before, school wasn't such a big deal to me," Nimmu says, speaking in Hindi through an interpreter. "But this year I suddenly feel so much pressure, and I've become extremely serious. I want to do very well."

To continue beyond 10th grade she'll need to pass a tough national exam this March.

The problem?

"And as of now, I'm not a great student," she says.

What Nimmu's Up Against

Child marriage has been illegal in India for years. (That's why we can't use Nimmu's full name; it's also illegal to name a minor involved in a crime in India.) Nevertheless, the practice is deeply embedded in the culture of many rural areas, and parents marry off their children all the time in secret. Nearly half of women age 20 to 24 in India were married by the time they turned 18 — with nearly one in five married by age 15, according to UNICEF. And India accounts for about a third of the world's child marriages.

We get a sense of what Nimmu is up against when we catch up with her midway through a long day at school.

It's 3 p.m. Nimmu has been in class almost continuously since 7 a.m. Now it's time for study hall. An aide pops his head in the door and barks at everyone to keep quiet. But Nimmu is worried about her math homework. She twiddles with her long braid, then pokes a friend.

"Hey!" she whispers. "Can you check this? My answer doesn't match what's in the book."

3:30 p.m. Nimmu has moved on to English class.

Seventy kids are crammed onto metal benches. It's stifling hot. Nimmu is losing focus. She starts humming to herself.

Next up, chemistry. Nimmu sighs heavily.

The teacher starts droning — and Nimmu is immediately lost.

"Sir ... we can't understand anything you're saying," she mutters under her breath, half-laughing, half-moaning. "It's like you have marbles in your mouth."

It's not until 8 p.m. that Nimmu finally gets a chance to chill in her dorm. The room is spare — no decoration on the walls, no chairs. Just four metal cots lined up in a row. Nimmu sits on one of them. Her roommates squeeze in next to her.

Everyone's giggling.

"Do you whisper to each other at night?" we ask. "Yes ma'am," they say.

"What are you going to talk about tonight when we leave?" we ask. Nimmu breaks into a mischievous grin. "Ma'am, you!" she says.

The girls are among 70 students provided with free room, board and schooling by the Veerni Institute. They're all from remote villages that generally don't have a high school nearby. About 30 of the girls are married — including every one of Nimmu's roommates.

One of them, a shy girl in a colorful headband, tells us she was 9 on her wedding day. Nobody explained what was happening during the ceremony.

"I had no idea I was getting married," she says.

Nimmu did know. She was matched with a boy just a few years older.

"I was married at 4 a.m. because that was considered an auspicious hour. ... I woke up and I wanted to go back to sleep, but my family wouldn't let me."

They helped her into a traditional Indian wedding gown.

"My dress was red," she remembers. "And it was very big because I was very small. And the scarf on my head was also too long."

We ask her if the gown was pretty. "No," she says, switching from Hindi to English and giving a rueful chuckle. "I don't like this."

It was too old-fashioned, she explains. And the embroidery was lame.

Still, at the time, Nimmu was excited. It was a party. Then she noticed that her older sister was sobbing. She was also being married that day.

"I asked her, 'Why are you so upset? You're getting married,' " Nimmu recalls. "She said, 'You're too young to understand. You'll understand when you're older.' "

Today, Nimmu does understand. Because she sees what's happening to other 15-year-old girls in the village. This summer one of her closest friends was sent to her in-laws. Now that girl spends all day cooking and cleaning for them.

"She tells me there is no life after marriage," says Nimmu. "She has no freedom. She has to do everything her in-laws say."

Nimmu's in-laws seem to have a similar future in mind for her.

"My in-laws don't want me to study 10th grade. They're OK with it as long as I'm doing well. ... Otherwise, they say what's the point?"

Nimmu's not trying to get out of her marriage. Arranged marriage is the norm in much of India. But she does want to delay the start of her married life. She wants to wait until she has enough education to land a job. She's heard that with a high school degree, or better yet, two or three years of training beyond, even a village girl can get a job as a teacher or a community health worker or a policewoman.

Nimmu is vague about what job she could do — maybe something in an office? But she has at least seen the example of a great-aunt who has a job as a teacher and who seems to be treated with so much more respect in her family. To Americans, it might seem a minor difference to start an arranged marriage at 18 or 20 rather than at 15. But Nimmu thinks the impact will be huge on her quality of life. It's one thing to arrive at your in-laws' house as a 15-year-old school dropout whom everyone can boss around. Quite another to arrive as a woman with her own income.

"That way nobody will be able to get away with saying to me, 'You're good for nothing.' ... And even if they say it, I can tell them, 'I earn my own money. I eat off my own money. So what's your problem?' "

The Search For The Missing Report Card

It's Sunday. Nimmu's one day off. We're in the car with her driving home to her village.

She doesn't visit often. The director of the Veerni Institute is taking her today because she needs to pick up last year's report card so she can complete her registration for this term.

We bump along a sandy, narrow road — flat desert stretching for miles on either side — before stopping next to a collection of concrete block huts.

Nimmu springs out of the car.

"Papa!" she cries at the sight of her father.

"Welcome, welcome, welcome!" he says.

She heads into her house. It's dark and cool inside. She pulls out a metal chest by her bed and starts searching for the report card.

Her father watches, a little worried. His name is Lumbaram. Like a lot of rural Indians he goes by one name.

He dresses like a typical villager — white tunic, multicolored turban. He's got a typical job among the men here as a construction worker. And he says all his life he's been taught the typical view of girls in the village: They're a burden. One more mouth to feed until you raise a dowry to pay some other family to take her off your hands.

He never accepted that idea.

"No that's a terrible way of thinking," he says. "Even as a child I always believed a girl and boy are the same."

He can't explain why he's always felt so differently from everyone else he knows. Maybe because he never had sisters and wished for them, he muses.

Yet when it came to marrying off his daughters, the family pressure was impossible to resist. It all started because Lumbaram's younger brother needed a wife.

"There is a shortage of girls everywhere. We couldn't find a girl," he says.

It's a persistent problem in this region. Having a girl is considered such a curse that families often insist on aborting a pregnancy if they find out the fetus is female. Or they'll kill an infant girl right after she's born.

"I searched for a bride for my brother for eight years," says Lumbaram.

Finally he had to make a deal with another family: Their daughter would marry his brother, and he'd give them his eldest daughter to marry their son. It's a common trade. And here's where Nimmu comes in. She's the middle daughter. And in the village, when you arrange a marriage for one daughter, you often marry off the rest at the same time.

"We are very poor and it takes so much money for one girl's wedding," says Lumbaram. "If I get one girl married it's the same price as if I get several girls married."

Still, he hated doing it. Just talking about it he starts to choke up.

"I really cried a lot at the time," he says, after regaining his composure. "Even right now I feel like crying. It hurts to see my child going through so much trauma. It makes me so sad."

But Lumbaram has vowed to make it up to his daughters. And the Veerni Institute has given him a way to do that by paying for their education. Normally Lumbaram couldn't afford to send Nimmu to high school. She would be sitting at home, and he'd have no excuse for not sending her to her in-laws at 15. Now he can tell them, "Look, she's finishing high school."

Nimmu is grateful to her father for sticking up for her. Still, the arrangement can sometimes strain their relationship. When she does poorly on a test, she says, "He gets angry with me and tells me ... we're going to have to withdraw you from school and send you to your in-laws' house because what will I have to tell them. ... He's under so much pressure in the village."

That's why at this particular moment, Nimmu is starting to stress out. It turns out the report card is nowhere to be found, and the deadline for handing it in is tomorrow.

"Maybe it's in my trunk back at school?" says Nimmu. "But I lost the key to it."

Her father shakes his head.

Nimmu's having a typical scatterbrained teen moment. But in her situation, every slip-up feels fraught with consequences.

Nimmu borrows a cellphone to call an administrator back at the school. Can you try breaking the lock, she asks. A few minutes later the administrator calls back. The report card was in the trunk.

"Thank God!" Nimmu says.

Crisis averted, Nimmu starts walking back to the car with the Veerni Institute's director. Lumbaram stops them. He points to a girl, lingering a few feet away. Can you please enroll her in the school, too, he asks.

"She's really intelligent," he says. "It's just that her parents don't care to educate her."

The director, Mahendra Sharma, looks pained. His budget is stretched to the max.

"I guarantee," Lumbaram continues. "This child won't cry and be homesick. She will just study."

OK, the director, agrees — he'll see what he can do.

A Pop Song Moment

On the long drive back to school, we talk music. Nimmu breaks into one of her favorite Bollywood songs. It's called "Hangover."

"I tried forgetting you!" Nimmu sings in Hindi. "The hangover of your memory!"

Suddenly, it's possible to forget that Nimmu is someone's wife.

For these few minutes, at least, she's just a 15-year-old girl, in the back seat of a car, singing a pop song.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're going to visit a place in Northern India. It's essentially a boarding school for child brides. The stakes for 10th graders there are higher than at most schools. Girls who don't pass the big tests can't stay in school. Instead, there's a good chance they'll be sent home to their husbands to be housewives at age 15. This story is part of our exploration this month of the lives of girls at this age around the world. NPR's Nurith Aizenman introduces us to Nimmu, who's working hard to avoid that fate.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Three in the afternoon, study hall - the aid is warning everyone to keep quiet. But Nimmu is anxious about her math homework. She twiddles with her long braid and pokes a friend.

NIMMU: (Through interpreter) Hey. Can you check this? My answer doesn't match what's in the book.

AIZENMAN: Four o'clock - time to move to the next classroom. Chemistry is coming up. Seventy kids cram onto metal benches. It's stifling hot. Nimmu is losing focus.

NIMMU: (Singing in foreign language).

AIZENMAN: The teacher starts droning.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

AIZENMAN: And Nimmu is lost.

NIMMU: (Through interpreter) So we can't understand anything you're saying. It's like you have marbles in your mouth.

AIZENMAN: This is a make or break year for Nimmu. See, she's been married since she was 10. It's a common practice in rural India. It's also illegal. That's why we can't use Nimmu's full name. But in the village, child brides don't move in with their husbands right away. It's when you turn 15. That's when they send you. And now that Nimmu is 15, this boarding school is the only thing keeping her from married life.

NIMMU: (Through interpreter) This year, I suddenly feel so much pressure, and I've become extremely serious. I want to do very well.

AIZENMAN: To stay in school, she's going to have to pass a tough national exam this March. The problem...

NIMMU: (Through interpreter) I'm not a great student.

AIZENMAN: Eight p.m. - finally, a chance to chill in the dorm room. Nimmu sits on her bed, squeezed between her roommates.

So you guys sleep next to each other?

NIMMU: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: Yes.

AIZENMAN: Ah, do you whisper to each other at night? Do you talk at night?

NIMMU: Yes, ma'am.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: Yes (laughter).

AIZENMAN: What are you going to talk about tonight when we leave?

NIMMU: Ma'am, you.

(LAUGHTER)

AIZENMAN: She's going to talk about me. The boarding school is a charity called the Veerni Institute. It's in the city of Jodhpur. The staff go around to villages in search of child brides and girls at risk of becoming child brides, and they offer parents a deal. High schools are scarce in the villages, so Veerni says, delay your daughter's married life, and we'll take her to the city and give her a free education. Thirty of the girls at Veerni are already married, including every one of Nimmu's roommates.

Most of you - your marriages were, like - your wedding was, like, six, seven years ago, right?

A shy girl in a headband nods. She was 9-years-old on her wedding day.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #3: (Foreign language spoken).

AIZENMAN: "I had no idea I was getting married," she says. Nimmu did know.

NIMMU: (Through interpreter) I was married at 4 a.m. because that was considered an auspicious hour. I woke up, and I wanted to go back to sleep, but my family wouldn't let me.

AIZENMAN: They helped her into a traditional Indian wedding gown.

NIMMU: (Through interpreter) My dress was red, and it was very big because I was so small. And the scarf on my head was also too long.

AIZENMAN: And was it pretty?

NIMMU: No. I don't like this (laughter).

AIZENMAN: Too old-fashioned, she says, and the embroidery was lame. Still, at the time, Nimmu was excited. It was a party. Then she noticed that her older sister was sobbing. She was also being married that day.

NIMMU: (Through interpreter) I asked her, why are you crying; you're getting married. She said, you're too young to understand.

AIZENMAN: She gets it now. This summer, one of Nimmu's good friends got sent to her in-laws. That girl spends all day cooking and cleaning for them. And lately, Nimmu's in-laws have been pressing her father to hand her over.

NIMMU: (Through interpreter) My in-laws don't want me to study 10th grade. They're OK with it as long as I'm doing well. Otherwise, they say, what's the point?

AIZENMAN: Nimmu's not trying to get out of her marriage. Arranged marriage is the norm in India. But she wants to finish school and get a job first.

NIMMU: (Through interpreter) That way nobody will be able to say to me, you're good for nothing. And even if they say it, I can tell them, I earn my own money. I eat off my own money, so what's your problem?

AIZENMAN: Sunday, Nimmu's one day off, she's come home to her village.

NIMMU: (Foreign language spoken).

AIZENMAN: She needs to pick up last year's report card. Without it, she can't finish enrollment in the 10th grade.

NIMMU: Papa.

LUMBARAM: Welcome, welcome, welcome.

AIZENMAN: She heads into the house, pulls out a metal chest by her bed and starts searching for the report card.

Her father watches a little worried. His name is Lumbaram. Like a lot of rural Indians, he goes by one name. He dresses like a typical villager - white tunic, multicolored turban. He's got a typical job - construction worker. And he says all his life, he's been taught the typical view of girls around here. They're a burden. But he never accepted that idea.

LUMBARAM: (Through interpreter) No. That's a terrible way of thinking, and I never, ever thought like that. Even as a child, I always believed a girl and boy are exactly the same.

AIZENMAN: And yet, when it came to marrying off his daughters, the family pressure was impossible to resist. It all started because Lumbaram's younger brother needed a wife.

LUMBARAM: (Through interpreter) There's a shortage of girls everywhere. It was impossible to get a girl without giving them one of mine.

AIZENMAN: So Lumbaram had to make a trade with another family. Their daughter would marry his brother. His eldest daughter would marry their son. It's a common exchange. And here's where Nimmu comes in. In the village, you marry one daughter, you marry the rest at the same time.

LUMBARAM: (Through interpreter) We are very poor, and it takes so much money for one girl's wedding. If I get one married, it's the same price as if I get all of them married.

AIZENMAN: Still, he hated doing this.

LUMBARAM: (Through interpreter) I really cried a lot of the time. Even right now, I feel like crying. It hurt so much to see my children going through so much drama. It makes me so sad.

AIZENMAN: But Veerni has given him a way to make it up to Nimmu. Now he can tell her in-laws, look; she's got to finish school first.

NIMMU: (Foreign language spoken).

LUMBARAM: (Foreign language spoken).

AIZENMAN: Time to go - Nimmu couldn't find the report card. Turns out it was in her trunk at school all along. Veerni's director, who drove her here, rolls his eyes - typical teen. They start walking back to the car. Her dad stops them. He points to another village girl lingering a few feet away. Can you please enroll her in the school too, he asks.

LUMBARAM: (Through interpreter) She's really intelligent. It's just that her parents don't care to educate her.

AIZENMAN: The director looks pained. His budget is stretched to the max.

LUMBARAM: (Through interpreter) I guarantee this child won't cry and be homesick. She will just study.

AIZENMAN: The director says, OK, I'll find a way to make it work.

All good?

NIMMU: Yeah.

AIZENMAN: On the long drive back to school, we talk music. Nimmu breaks into one of her favorite bollywood songs. It's called "Hangover." It's about a love you can't get over.

NIMMU: (Singing in foreign language).

AIZENMAN: And for a moment, it's possible to forget that she's someone's wife.

NIMMU: (Singing in foreign language).

AIZENMAN: For these few minutes, at least, she's just a 15-year-old girl in the backseat of a car singing a pop song.

NIMMU: (Singing in foreign language).

AIZENMAN: Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HANGOVER")

SHREYA GHOSHAL: (Singing in foreign language).

SIEGEL: That story was produced by NPR's Vikki Valentine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.