It takes fiery zeal and great courage to go against the flow and achieve what Dr Kriti Bharti has in life. Not only has she made it to the Limca Book of Records as the first person in India to annul child marriage, but also earned much recognition as a tireless crusader of children’s rights and women’s empowerment through Saarthi Trust, the NGO she heads as founder and managing trustee. Recently, Taffd, a US-based magazine, has recognised her as one of the world’s top 10 activists, and international non-governmental organisation, Girls Not Brides, has bestowed the title of ‘Change Maker’ on her. The BBC too has recognised her as one of 100 inspirational women.
Turning pain into purpose
Dr Bharti’s remarkable journey, however, has been fraught with struggles. She was abandoned by her father while still in the womb. Her maternal relatives then wanted to abort her. Though her mother gave birth to her after a lot of difficulty, distressed that she was at the time of delivery, her relatives didn’t accept her and considered her cursed. They tortured her verbally and physically and even poisoned her when she was 10. While she did survive, the poison went to her spinal cord and because of this she became bedridden. After all available treatments failed, Guru Shri Brahmanand Paramhans took charge of her and cured her through reiki therapy, and after two years, she was able to walk again.
In a sense, this was her second life. “God’s plan was to make me work in this field, which is why he saved me and made me strong,” reflects Dr Bharti. She then took a revolutionary step and gave herself a new identity by changing her surname to ‘Bharti’, meaning ‘Daughter of India’. For the next two years, she lived in her guru’s ashram, attending camps and treating people through reiki therapy, as the in charge of the women’s desk. She then returned to her mother and decided to study. As she had dropped out in Standard 4, she had to jump straight to the 10th standard. Difficult though it was to cope, she did make it, working 16-18 hours every day.
Dr Kriti Bharti (middle) with children of Saarthi Trust during the orientation camp
Against all odds
Thereafter, she was always amongst the toppers in her class, earning many distinctions. She also took part in debates, which boosted her confidence. In college, she opted for psychology and worked with some NGOs.
Dr Bharti feels that it was not she who chose this field, but rather it was the field that chose her. When she started working with NGOs, she found that most of them were working only on paper. “This led me to found my own organisation, Saarthi Trust, in 2011,” she says. Soon after, she annulled India’s first child marriage. The victim was a girl who was married off at the age of one. Her gauna (bidai) ceremony was to take place when she was about 18. Due to personal reasons, she didn’t want to go to her in-laws’ place, so she approached Dr Bharti to stop the gauna. No legal procedure exists to stop the ceremony, and Dr Bharti didn’t want to put the victim through divorce, given the stigma attached to it so she looked for a permanent solution to return the girl her dignity.
“After going through some research studies, I found that annulment was possible, so I consulted some judges, magistrates and lawyers about the procedure and in no time India had its first child marriage annulment,” says Dr Bharti.
Dr Kriti Bharti (standing, fifth from left) with some of her child marriage annulment girls
Courage and determination
Apart from child marriage victims, Dr Bharti also works for slum girls, as well as victims of child labour and sexual offenses. In many slums, Saarthi Trust has a room where children are educated. They also run training centres to empower women who are capable of running a business from their homes. Further, she is a member of ‘None in Three’, a global research centre for prevention of gender-based violence.
Dr Bharti’s job comes with its own share of risks and dangers though, having faced countless death and rape threats already. But she remains undeterred, believing firmly that God has sent her for a reason and won’t take away her life until her mission is completed.
Saarthi Trust works on five models to eradicate child marriages: annulment, prevention, rehabilitation, organising awareness camps for villagers and screening documentary films and plays. Since it was established in 2011, it has annulled 40 child marriages and prevented 1,400 of them, either through counselling or legal action. Further, it has helped rehabilitate more than 7,000 children and 6,500 women and motivated 20,000 people to say no to child marriage.
Dr Kriti Bharti posing with her India Book of Records certificate
Honour and glory
Dr Bharti’s contributions, needless to say, has earned her many honours and awards, among which is US-based Zonta International Award, a Centennial Biennium Award for India; the Global Human Rights Award from Brahma Kumaris; the Marwar Ratna (which is presented by the Mehrangarh Museum Trust); and the Maharana Mewar Samman Award; among others. Apart from her record in the Limca Book of Records, she also holds records for annulling two child marriages in three days, in India Book of Records, World Records India and Unique World Records; and a record of a hat trick of annulments on Akshaya Tritiya, in World Records India.
Dr Bharti’s plans for the future include making a safe shelter home for children who don’t have family support and establishing India’s first rehabilitation centre for those undergoing depression or having suicidal thoughts. She also wants to bring about a preventive approach towards sexual assault. But child marriage would continue to be a focus area. “My aim is to make a difference and eradicate child marriage forever. No physical manifestation of it should exist, and the future generation should only read about it in books,” she concludes optimistically.