She can’t recall what she ate at the ceremony, or if she got to dance. She isn’t certain if she cried. But if she did, she says, it wouldn’t have been from happiness. It would have been because she was very scared.
The ceremony took place five years ago, when Dapu was nine. Until that day, she’d spent her time playing outside her hut, where all seven members of her family slept. When her grandfather arranged a union with a boy from another village, she didn’t understand what
“I don’t like thinking about it,” she says. “Two years ago, when they were 13 and 14, my sisters were sent 200km away to live with their husbands. You marry when you’re young, then go and live with your husband later. I haven’t seen them since.”
But Dapu’s fate might be very different. For the past four years, she has been living in Veerni Girls’ Hostel – a boarding house that accommodates 70 girls aged 10 to 17 and is currently working to eliminate child marriage in rural Rajasthan through education.
“We founded the Veerni Project in 1993 to boost opportunities for women,” explains Mahendra Sharma, who heads up the initiative.
“First, we established literacy centres and sewing classes so that women would be able to earn money. Then, in 2005, we found a site that we could transform into a boarding house, offering girls full-time schooling for free.”
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In 10 years, 99 girls have completed their exams and 69 of them have gone on to higher education.
Only one former child bride has “been returned” to her husband, and she hit international headlines shortly afterwards for insisting upon her right to a divorce. The others have all won scholarships to study at university, while their husbands wait at home.
The hope is that by the time they graduate, they’ll be armed with the tools to escape the marriage altogether.
Every girl has at least one fresh apple every day at “fruit time”. Phones are banned, but a blind eye is turned to make-up. Carrier bags featuring photos of Bollywood celebs are pressed between diary pages. Families visit on the last Sunday of every month. Weekly speakers give talks on female empowerment and there’s a talent show at Christmas.
“We want them to be children,” explains Devshree, 22, who was a student at Veerni before becoming the hostel’s matron last year. “I remember coming here when I was 14. It was scary at first. I’d never spent a night away from home before. Girls are not equal to boys in the villages. But when they come here, we try to show them that they are.”
One of the youngest girls in the house is Priyanka.
Forced to marry a man from another village when she was five, she doesn’t think she knew what “marriage” meant at the time.
She’s not certain she does now. “Three of my sisters live with their husbands,’ she says. “My oldest sister is 18 and has three sons.”
The 11 year old now sleeps in the junior dormitory on the top floor of the hostel with 40 other girls under 14. Everyone has a bed with a foam mattress, covered in a pink, candy-striped sheet.
Not all the girls are child brides. Monika came to the hostel when she was 10. Her father had been killed falling underneath a train, leaving her mother to work long hours packing peanuts on a nearby farm.
“When he died, there was nobody else to help,” she says, quietly. When her mum heard about the Veerni Project, she begged them to take her daughter. “Now I have to work hard, so I can become a pilot,” she explains. “My dad said being a pilot was the best job. I want to make him proud.”
Two months ago, the school’s effect on the community became clear. Elders from Meghwalon Ki Dhani – a poverty-stricken village where every girl is married off before the age of nine – invited the Veerni staff members for a visit.
Upon arrival, the village elders announced that they would not only outlaw child marriage, but would also dissolve any unions that had yet to be consummated.
The elders are now building a computer centre in the village for the girls who were too young to attend the hostel so they could get a head-start.
“Five years ago, that would have been their lowest priority,” says Sharma, proudly. “They’re finally realising that by investing in their daughters’ futures, they’re investing in their own.”