New Delhi, India – Sonam Kumari left her house in the eastern Indian state of Bihar after her parents began to plan her marriage last year.
The 19-year-old resident of the state capital, Patna, tried hard to convince her parents to allow her to continue her studies and delay the marriage.
When her requests did not get any positive response, she decided to leave her house and move to Gurugram city in the northern state of Haryana, 1,100km (683 miles) away.
Currently pursuing her college education through distance mode, Sonam has also joined a job to meet her expenses.
“I wanted to study but my parents did not listen. I was left with no choice but to leave the house,” she told Al Jazeera.
Though she was far away from her parents, the pressure to marry had not exactly eased.
Last month, Sonam decided to write a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging him to increase the marriage age for girls to 21, like it is for the boys, “so that we can complete our studies”.
Sonam’s story sparked a silent movement in Haryana, which at 879 (females against 1,000 males) has one of the worst sex ratios among the Indian states.
Hundreds of girls from the state have written similar letters to Modi, who himself promised last year to review the minimum age for marriage for women during his independence day speech.
Currently, the minimum age of consent for marriage is 18 and 21 years for women and men, respectively, which is also prescribed in the Special Marriage Act, 1954 and Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006.
In June last year, the government formed a committee “to ensure that the daughters are no longer suffering from malnutrition and they are married off at the right age”, Modi said in his August 15, 2020 speech.
According to Indian media reports, the committee submitted its report in January this year, but no decision on raising the marriage age of women has been taken by the government yet.
In such a scenario, girls in Haryana continue to write to Modi, with nearly 800 letters sent to his office so far. Their main concern: they want to complete their studies before marrying.
“At 18 years, the girl hardly completes her school and at the age of 21, she completes her graduation. Obviously being a graduate, she has more options for a better job or if she wants to start something for her own,” Priyakshi Jakhar, a resident of Haryana’s Hisar district, told Al Jazeera.
In their letters, most of the girls have cited their experiences, while some have even penned a poem supporting their cause.
Anju from Haryana’s Palwal district is a postgraduate in law and is now preparing to join the judicial services.
“It has been my personal experience. My cousin was married at an early age. She had just completed her Class X. The relationship did not work out, she got pregnant and delivered a baby. Now she is separated and has nowhere to go. I think if she had completed her education, she would have been better settled,” Anju told Al Jazeera.
Mubashira, a native of Muslim-dominated Mewat in Haryana, completed her bachelor’s degree in education from New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia university. She is now teaching young girls in her home district.
Mubashira was instrumental in spreading the word about the letter campaign and got several girls to write to Modi on the issue.
“I teach young girls and after a year of their college studies or so, they are married. Once married, their studies are disrupted,” she told Al Jazeera.
“They cannot even manage their households at this age. Several health issues during pregnancies are also common. We should allow the girls to mature, complete their studies, and when she is mentally prepared, then only marry her.”
Tabassum Muskan, a law student from Mewat, says she loves to play cricket and wants to pursue it as a career. She has also written to Modi, demanding marriage age be raised.
“We should give girls a chance. Just see how they are excelling in various fields and bringing laurels to the country,” she told Al Jazeera.
The brainchild behind the girls’ campaign of writing letters to Modi is Sunil Jaglan, former head of Bibipur village council in Haryana’s Jind district.
Jaglan says he has been working for women’s empowerment for more than 10 years.
“Unless we are able to bring a smile to the face of every female, our goal will remain unfulfilled. This smile can come in three ways: education, health, and financial independence of the females. We have to strive for this,” Jaglan told Al Jazeera.
“If we increase the marriage age, the girls will get a chance to complete their studies. Once educated, they will be in a better situation to take their decisions.”
Jaglan said he received several complaints about early or even child marriages during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The number of such marriages swelled up during COVID. We intervened in several such cases,” he said.
Shah Alam, professor of women’s studies at the Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh state, says the debate over the right marriage age for women has been going on for quite some time.
“The age of consent for marriage for women is 18 years while for men it is 21. This is gender discrimination and a violation of equality,” he told Al Jazeera.
“When the age of voting is 18 years and it is gender-neutral, then the age of consent for marriage should also be same and gender-neutral.”
Academic and feminist Roop Rekha Verma also feels that different marriage age for girls and boys is “an old thought” with “no scientific or social reasoning behind keeping different ages for marriage for girls and boys”.
“Actually, it reflects the inherent thinking of the society which feels that the female should not be at par with males,” she told Al Jazeera.