Why This Child Bride Needs Good Grades: #15Girls : Goats and Soda Nimmu attends the Veerni boarding school in Jodhpur, India. The grade she gets on a national exam this year will decide her future.
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Why This Child Bride Needs Good Grades: #15Girls

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Why This Child Bride Needs Good Grades: #15Girls

Why This Child Bride Needs Good Grades: #15Girls

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're going to visit a place in Northern India. It's essentially a boarding school for child brides. The stakes for 10th graders there are higher than at most schools. Girls who don't pass the big tests can't stay in school. Instead, there's a good chance they'll be sent home to their husbands to be housewives at age 15. This story is part of our exploration this month of the lives of girls at this age around the world. NPR's Nurith Aizenman introduces us to Nimmu, who's working hard to avoid that fate.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Three in the afternoon, study hall - the aid is warning everyone to keep quiet. But Nimmu is anxious about her math homework. She twiddles with her long braid and pokes a friend.

NIMMU: (Through interpreter) Hey. Can you check this? My answer doesn't match what's in the book.

AIZENMAN: Four o'clock - time to move to the next classroom. Chemistry is coming up. Seventy kids cram onto metal benches. It's stifling hot. Nimmu is losing focus.

NIMMU: (Singing in foreign language).

AIZENMAN: The teacher starts droning.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

AIZENMAN: And Nimmu is lost.

NIMMU: (Through interpreter) So we can't understand anything you're saying. It's like you have marbles in your mouth.

AIZENMAN: This is a make or break year for Nimmu. See, she's been married since she was 10. It's a common practice in rural India. It's also illegal. That's why we can't use Nimmu's full name. But in the village, child brides don't move in with their husbands right away. It's when you turn 15. That's when they send you. And now that Nimmu is 15, this boarding school is the only thing keeping her from married life.

NIMMU: (Through interpreter) This year, I suddenly feel so much pressure, and I've become extremely serious. I want to do very well.

AIZENMAN: To stay in school, she's going to have to pass a tough national exam this March. The problem...

NIMMU: (Through interpreter) I'm not a great student.

AIZENMAN: Eight p.m. - finally, a chance to chill in the dorm room. Nimmu sits on her bed, squeezed between her roommates.

So you guys sleep next to each other?

NIMMU: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: Yes.

AIZENMAN: Ah, do you whisper to each other at night? Do you talk at night?

NIMMU: Yes, ma'am.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: Yes (laughter).

AIZENMAN: What are you going to talk about tonight when we leave?

NIMMU: Ma'am, you.

(LAUGHTER)

AIZENMAN: She's going to talk about me. The boarding school is a charity called the Veerni Institute. It's in the city of Jodhpur. The staff go around to villages in search of child brides and girls at risk of becoming child brides, and they offer parents a deal. High schools are scarce in the villages, so Veerni says, delay your daughter's married life, and we'll take her to the city and give her a free education. Thirty of the girls at Veerni are already married, including every one of Nimmu's roommates.

Most of you - your marriages were, like - your wedding was, like, six, seven years ago, right?

A shy girl in a headband nods. She was 9-years-old on her wedding day.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #3: (Foreign language spoken).

AIZENMAN: "I had no idea I was getting married," she says. Nimmu did know.

NIMMU: (Through interpreter) I was married at 4 a.m. because that was considered an auspicious hour. I woke up, and I wanted to go back to sleep, but my family wouldn't let me.

AIZENMAN: They helped her into a traditional Indian wedding gown.

NIMMU: (Through interpreter) My dress was red, and it was very big because I was so small. And the scarf on my head was also too long.

AIZENMAN: And was it pretty?

NIMMU: No. I don't like this (laughter).

AIZENMAN: Too old-fashioned, she says, and the embroidery was lame. Still, at the time, Nimmu was excited. It was a party. Then she noticed that her older sister was sobbing. She was also being married that day.

NIMMU: (Through interpreter) I asked her, why are you crying; you're getting married. She said, you're too young to understand.

AIZENMAN: She gets it now. This summer, one of Nimmu's good friends got sent to her in-laws. That girl spends all day cooking and cleaning for them. And lately, Nimmu's in-laws have been pressing her father to hand her over.

NIMMU: (Through interpreter) My in-laws don't want me to study 10th grade. They're OK with it as long as I'm doing well. Otherwise, they say, what's the point?

AIZENMAN: Nimmu's not trying to get out of her marriage. Arranged marriage is the norm in India. But she wants to finish school and get a job first.

NIMMU: (Through interpreter) That way nobody will be able to say to me, you're good for nothing. And even if they say it, I can tell them, I earn my own money. I eat off my own money, so what's your problem?

AIZENMAN: Sunday, Nimmu's one day off, she's come home to her village.

NIMMU: (Foreign language spoken).

AIZENMAN: She needs to pick up last year's report card. Without it, she can't finish enrollment in the 10th grade.

NIMMU: Papa.

LUMBARAM: Welcome, welcome, welcome.

AIZENMAN: She heads into the house, pulls out a metal chest by her bed and starts searching for the report card.

Her father watches a little worried. His name is Lumbaram. Like a lot of rural Indians, he goes by one name. He dresses like a typical villager - white tunic, multicolored turban. He's got a typical job - construction worker. And he says all his life, he's been taught the typical view of girls around here. They're a burden. But he never accepted that idea.

LUMBARAM: (Through interpreter) No. That's a terrible way of thinking, and I never, ever thought like that. Even as a child, I always believed a girl and boy are exactly the same.

AIZENMAN: And yet, when it came to marrying off his daughters, the family pressure was impossible to resist. It all started because Lumbaram's younger brother needed a wife.

LUMBARAM: (Through interpreter) There's a shortage of girls everywhere. It was impossible to get a girl without giving them one of mine.

AIZENMAN: So Lumbaram had to make a trade with another family. Their daughter would marry his brother. His eldest daughter would marry their son. It's a common exchange. And here's where Nimmu comes in. In the village, you marry one daughter, you marry the rest at the same time.

LUMBARAM: (Through interpreter) We are very poor, and it takes so much money for one girl's wedding. If I get one married, it's the same price as if I get all of them married.

AIZENMAN: Still, he hated doing this.

LUMBARAM: (Through interpreter) I really cried a lot of the time. Even right now, I feel like crying. It hurt so much to see my children going through so much drama. It makes me so sad.

AIZENMAN: But Veerni has given him a way to make it up to Nimmu. Now he can tell her in-laws, look; she's got to finish school first.

NIMMU: (Foreign language spoken).

LUMBARAM: (Foreign language spoken).

AIZENMAN: Time to go - Nimmu couldn't find the report card. Turns out it was in her trunk at school all along. Veerni's director, who drove her here, rolls his eyes - typical teen. They start walking back to the car. Her dad stops them. He points to another village girl lingering a few feet away. Can you please enroll her in the school too, he asks.

LUMBARAM: (Through interpreter) She's really intelligent. It's just that her parents don't care to educate her.

AIZENMAN: The director looks pained. His budget is stretched to the max.

LUMBARAM: (Through interpreter) I guarantee this child won't cry and be homesick. She will just study.

AIZENMAN: The director says, OK, I'll find a way to make it work.

All good?

NIMMU: Yeah.

AIZENMAN: On the long drive back to school, we talk music. Nimmu breaks into one of her favorite bollywood songs. It's called "Hangover." It's about a love you can't get over.

NIMMU: (Singing in foreign language).

AIZENMAN: And for a moment, it's possible to forget that she's someone's wife.

NIMMU: (Singing in foreign language).

AIZENMAN: For these few minutes, at least, she's just a 15-year-old girl in the backseat of a car singing a pop song.

NIMMU: (Singing in foreign language).

AIZENMAN: Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HANGOVER")

SHREYA GHOSHAL: (Singing in foreign language).

SIEGEL: That story was produced by NPR's Vikki Valentine.

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