We recently met a girl who was married at thirteen.
We heard the first half of her story while driving out to rural Uttar Pradesh, four hours east of New Delhi, with Sam Singh, founder of the Pardada Pardadi School for Girls. One day four years ago, Sam told us, he arrived at his school to discover his students and faculty buzzing with rumor: Ruksana was getting married. Thirteen-year-old Ruksana.
Sam called Ruksana (not her real name) into his office and learned that the rumors were true. Her grandmother had arranged everything. In one week, Ruksana would quit school to become wife to a forty-year-old street barber from a neighboring village.
Ruksana grandmother cared for her because Ruksana’s mother was mentally retarded and completely unstable (“She runs around the village naked,” as Sam put it). Ruksana’s father was a rapist.
Sam went to see Ruksana’s grandmother. “Why are you marrying off such a young girl? Why are you throwing her future away? What can we do to prevent this?”
Nothing. The grandmother was in ill health, and had nothing to leave her ward. The moment she died, the grandmother feared, Ruksana would have no choice but prostitution. Marriage, even to such an undesirable partner, was the best choice for her granddaughter’s future.
Sam’s protests were futile. “You want to help her?” the grandmother demanded. “You adopt her or you marry her.”
Sam, of course, could do neither.
When I was thirteen, I was an eighth-grader at Madison Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We had a swimming pool and a black poodle named Gypsy. I was on the yearbook committee. I was reading Roots. To amuse my friends, I’d get packages of crackers from the cafeteria, smash in their wrappers, pour the crumbs into my mouth, and then shower my friends with cracker dust when I talked. I loved how they always hid Wilson’s face on Home Improvement.
When Ruksana was thirteen, she had her first child.
Sam hadn’t thought about Ruksana in a long time – as sad as her story was, she was just one of many sad stories. Spurred by our questions, though, he made some calls and arranged for us to meet her in the home of a prominent village lawyer.
In the four intervening years, Ruksana’s husband had left her. Her grandmother, still alive, still terribly frail, still terrified for the future of her young granddaughter, had recently arranged another marriage. Ruksana, when asked, admitted she didn’t know who he was or what he did.
Sam presented her with an option. He knew of an organization teaching vocational skills to young Muslim girls – located, unfortunately, in Goa, far away on India’s west coast. Ruksana could leave her grandmother for Goa and for a slightly better future, if her grandmother could bear the humiliation of canceling the marriage arrangement and the possibility of never seeing granddaughter or her great-grandson again, and if Ruksana would agree to the prospect of a future far away from everything she’s ever known.
Ruksana smiled bashfully, her eyes cast downward, as the adults discussed her fate. Her son sat quietly on her lap for a time; when he squirmed too much, she put him down and he stood patiently at her feet. Dave and I watched in silence as the two rich and prominent men, one dressed in Western clothes and another in fine white robes, berated and pleaded and cajoled the grandmother, explaining the possibilities that awaited Ruksana if she left, and the misery that was sure to find her if she stayed.
Sam finally asked Ruksana what she wanted to do. Ruksana glanced at her grandmother. A negative twitch of her grandmother’s head sealed Ruksana’s fate: she would stay, and she would get married, for the second time, at seventeen years old.