In the western state of Rajasthan, a group of about 70 village girls, some of them already married, are receiving a full education, a break from their families, and a chance at independence.
JODHPUR — It's early afternoon — break time — at the Veerni Institute, a non-profit boarding school in Jodhpur that educates girls from outlying villages. The students gather for lunch. Before they eat, they chant prayers, sending thanks for their blessings.
"Today the menu is beans, rice, potato curry, a desert and salad. It's good and will give me energy for the day," says Dhapu, 15.
After lunch I get a chance to hear more about the teenager's story. "I'm from a nearby village. I'm in 11th grade and live here at the institute," says Dhapu, "I got married when I was very young. I think it was in 2009. Right now I am 15 years old. I don't remember much about my marriage, but I know that my husband doesn't do anything."
All together, there are about 70 girls who live at Veerni Institute. Like Dhapu, nearly half are child brides. At the school they attend classes and also receive daily meals, uniforms, books and computer training.
Director Mahendra Sharma says the school gives child brides a unique chance to study without the interruptions of family life and the pressures of marriage. And sometimes that can have a huge impact on their lives.
"It used to be very difficult to bring child brides to the institute," he explains. "Their parents thought that modern education would spoil them and make them arrogant. But we brought them in on the condition the girls live here until 12th grade. We've had child brides here that are only 5 or 6 years old."
Mahendra says the committment to stay through 12th grade helps in some cases to delay or even cancel planned child marriages. "When they finish here the girls are self-reliant, which is a turning point for their parents, who can then see the value of educating their daughters," he says. "And when they see that, many of families are ready to cancel the marriages altogether."
Demand for space in the school is high. Last year the Veerni Institute received more than 200 applications for just four vacant spots. About a quarter of the applicants were child brides.
The school has been running for 12 years now, and has educated hundreds of child brides, says Mahendra. "Twenty child brides completed their education here last year," he says. "Ten went on to higher education, half of them in nursing school."
Despite government efforts to end the practice, child marriages continue to take place in India. Analysts point to poverty and lack of awareness as the main reasons the tradition persists.
"The only solution to this problem is education," says Vimlesh Sharma, the Veerni Institute's health inspector. "This is why we go to distant villages to educate the parents of child brides. We don't criticize them. We just ask them to get their daughters educated before finally sending them to their husbands."
Dhapu, drawing on her own experience as a child bride, is committed to ending the practice. She has high hopes for her future. "I want to join the police," she says. "This has been my dream since I was a child. I want to help young girls. I'll never allow a child marriage to go ahead. Child marriage is a crime and nobody should be allowed to do it. A child doesn't understand the meaning of marriage."
Over the next decade, assuming present trends continue, 150 million girls will be married before their 18th birthday. That's an average 15 million girls each year.