HYDERABAD, INDIA – Nasreen Begum was married two months after her menstrual cycle started when she was 12 years old.
“I had no idea what a marriage was,” she says. “But [my] parents told me that I was mature now, and getting married was the best thing that could happen to me.”
During the next decade, she married three times to men twice her age. She says they each made her do all the housework, had sex with her whenever they wanted and then abandoned her for other women.
“I have lived the life of an insect,” says Begum, who is from Hyderabad, the capital of India’s Andhra Pradesh state.
Now, the 23-year-old mother of two girls is training to be a video campaigner against child marriage.
After her third husband divorced her two years ago, she and her daughters moved in with her mother. She discovered a motivational center in the neighborhood run by Mahita, a nongovernmental organization campaigning against child rights violations in Hyderabad’s slums.
Mahita teaches girls and adolescents from poor families vocational skills, such as how to make dresses, candles and henna tattoos. They also train them to produce videos to raise awareness about illegal cultural practices, such as child marriage.
At Mahita’s center, Nasreen Begum watched a film made by Nasreen Khatun, one of the organization’s original video trainees, about Khatun’s experience as a child bride.
“I watched the video, and I saw Nasreen smiling, talking with confidence at the camera, and I was so surprised,” Nasreen Begum says. “I could not believe that this girl also had a tragic past like me. Could I ever be like her? How could I smile like her, talk so confidently, take a bus all by myself, and go to an office and work?”
Masiya Begum, who leads Mahita’s video initiative, recommended that she make her own video. Today, Nasreen Begum and Masiya Begum are making a docudrama on her life.
The first girls she wants to help avoid child marriage are her daughters.
“That is something I will never let happen to my daughters,” she says. “They will not be married until they are 18 – the legal age of marriage.”
Organizations in Andhra Pradesh train women who were child brides to use video, puppetry and folk music to raise community awareness about the negative consequences of child marriage. The girls and community members they have educated now report child marriages to stage interventions and even start their own initiatives. Activists say that generating awareness through the arts is crucial to supplement government programs.
The legal marriage age in India is 18 for women and 21 for men, according to Indian law.
Nearly half – 43 percent – of Indian women ages 20 to 24 married before age 18 during 2007 and 2008, according to 2011 data from UNICEF. This number was higher in Andhra Pradesh state – nearly 52 percent.
Ramesh Shekhar Reddy, Mahita’s founder and program director, says child marriage persists because