The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that at least 1.5 million girls under 18 are married off in India, and that nearly 16% of adolescent girls aged 15 - 19 in the country are currently married.

Child marriage has a devastating impact on children’s education and livelihoods, often contributing to high levels of poverty and inequality as large numbers of girls and boys who are married young do not complete their schooling. This in addition to the sexual and physical violence that overwhelmingly occurs in conjunction with child marriage. According to, more than 40% of the world’s child marriages take place in India with over 50% of girls being married off before they are 18.

Roshni Perween is a 2023 Young Activist Summit laureate who was married at 13 and, following her escape from her marriage, has dedicated her life to ensuring child marriage is eradicated in India. What’s more is that civic space in India is considered to be repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor. In addition to dealing with a shrinking civic space, Roshni highlights that her work is often at odds with prevailing patriarchal views of women and girls.

Here she shares her story of how she’s slowly changing perceptions about child marriage.

Editor’s note: This article includes mentions of self-harm and abuse.

My name is Roshni Perween and I am a social activist working in the issue of ending child marriage. I am from Kishanganj in the Bihar district, which sits on the international border of Nepal and Bangladesh, in the West Bengal state of India.

My father worked a low-income job, my mother was a homemaker, and I have two older brothers. We belonged to a very remote village where I did my primary schooling. At the age of 13, I got married to a man who was over 40 years old. Following my marriage I suffered a great deal. I was brutally tortured and raped [by my husband]. I was also tortured physically and mentally, and sexually harassed by the in-laws as well. After all these atrocities I endured in the marriage, I begged to move back to my father's place, which I was able to do after two years in the marriage.

After leaving my marriage, I returned to father’s home in my community where child marriage is prevalent. Since I had returned from my in-laws, and there is stigma around that, I was not supported by my father's family. For the next three years, I was in a severe depression. I attempted suicide multiple times.

As a result of the marital rape, I had become pregnant as a teenager and became a young mother. I was also not given enough food while at home, and after years of depression both my child and I were malnourished. That’s when my motherly instinct took over and I decided that I had to look for work so I could provide for me and my son. So I joined a school where I worked for a few months, but because of a patriarchal society they didn’t view me well, so I had to leave.

I joined another school, and after the second school I decided to move onto something better, which was when I joined the ChildLine India foundation. This was an autonomous organization under the government of India. It was a free helpline number that could be used by any child [in the country]. I worked at the foundation from 2018 until 2021.

During my time at the foundation I got a new direction and saw that there were so many girls who were trapped in the culture of child marriage. The turning point came when I rescued nine children from trafficking, which I did with the help of the local administration. It was then that I decided I would work towards saving children from the ill-hand of child marriage and trafficking.

In September 2021 I left ChildLine India and I had the opportunity to join an international organization called Save the Children India where I got to work on issues of child protection. However this meant that I had to move to Khagaria district, which is one of the most backward districts of Bihar and even India. I left my native home for the first time and moved to Khagaria.

There (in Khagaria) I got the idea, once again, that I had to work on the issues of child protection, and not only child marriage, but on issues of child labour, and children who were not enrolled in school. I realized that I also wanted to link these children with social protection schemes by the government. So I got a lot of training in social benefit packages and communication where I learned a lot. I then worked with frontline workers in the villages, and gave training to officials.

I also decided to work with faith leaders because the faith leaders are one of the major players impacting society. During this time I managed to help rescue more girls from child marriage, once again with the support with the local administration. One case was during the Hindu festival of Holi, where I got information that a girl child would get married after the festival.

I wrote a letter to the district magistrate and called a police officer to rescue that girl. The police officers came to the house as they were also concerned, and in the end they got them to agree they will not get their daughters and sons married without their adult consent. This was one of my major achievements and I felt as though I had done something for this society.

While working in Khagaria, I had left my son back home in Kishanganj. My son lived with my mother and because I wanted to look after and be closer to him, so I resigned from Save the Children, and decided to go back home to start my own independent work. Every time I returned to Kishanganj I found that there were still so many cases of child marriage there.

I also found that when I started my work I was oppressed by society because it is a patriarchal society [and there was resistance]. So I wasn’t accepted in the community, but I continued anyway and went to different places to train groups of children about the dangers of child marriage.

These groups became active once they got the information and they visited the parents of girls who were about to be married, to stop the marriages. Where they are not able to stop the child marriage, then they call me in. I intervene and also focus on making sure these children get enrolled in government schools as well. 100 children were saved this way, and some were rescued from child marriage, child labour, and trafficking.

Despite the success of the interventions, there have been challenges. Leaving my husband and returning home meant that I was seen by many as being a woman of poor character, despite the fact that I was a child when I was married off. That didn’t matter in a patriarchal society.

When I moved from home to Khagaria I lived alone, and even then there was gossip about me. There was talk about me at my school jobs and I eventually left the village to live on the outskirts of the city area because of this pressure and people being against me. Even some public officials had the same view of me, and that was a challenge.

I would sometimes give out my number so it can be used in case help was needed and it was misused. I would be called at, but I did the work anyway, and slowly the officials, and then the community, recognised me and my work. Last year I got a call from a parent from my own village where the daughter was married off as a child and she had been thrown out by her in-laws after her husband died.

Her parents then called me for help and I see this as a major achievement that signals my work is accepted. However, doing this work is also hard because of finances and finding the money to continue and grow. My future plans include not only rescuing children from child marriages but also expanding my awareness and sensitisation programs with children, parents, the community and with government officials.

I also have plans to establish a resource center for girls. I am now waiting and working on financial support so that I can buy some tailoring machines for them, connect with some computer classes, coaching, and so I can enroll the girls in life skills training programs. With enough financial support I can look beyond where I am currently working now.

Despite the cultural and financial challenges, I have dedicated my life to this mission of helping children and I will not rest until the last girl in these areas is rescued from child marriage.

As Told to Gugulethu Mhlungu, the article has been lightly edited for clarity.

In My Own Words

Demand Equity

I Was Married At 13, And Now I Work To End Child Marriage In India.

By Roshni Perween