CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Police in the southern Indian state of Karnataka have rescued a schoolgirl who called them for help after learning she was to be married to a much older man, campaigners said on Tuesday, in a case highlighting the risk of child trafficking in the region.
In a rare occurrence, the 15-year-old called the police a day after pre-wedding ceremonies began in her village in Karnataka's Kalaburagi district.
Police officials said eight people, including the 26-year-old prospective groom from the western Indian state of Gujarat, have been arrested in connection with the case.
In India, the legal age for marriage is 18 for girls and 21 for boys. But considered a financial burden on their families, many girls are married off by their parents before their 18th birthday.
Children's charities say there has been a growing trend of suitors from Gujarat seeking brides from Karnataka, paying a dowry of up to 100,000 rupees (£1191) and covering the costs of the wedding.
"Since Gujarat has a skewed sex ratio, many older men come here to marry because they don't find girls back home," said Anand Raj of non-profit Margadarshi Society, which runs a helpline for children to report abuse.
"But they only want girls below 18 and that makes us suspect trafficking."
The Gujarati families come, strike a deal, marry and return to their homes in two days, officials investigating the schoolgirl's case said.
"Our probe showed that in this case, the Gujarat family came and met two local residents and said they wanted a bride on December 16," district child protection officer C V Raman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Wedding celebrations were well underway by December 17 and would have ended on Sunday if the girl hadn't called."
Nagasimha G. Rao of non-profit Child Rights Trust said such cases were clear examples of "trafficking in the name of marriage".
"Northern Karnataka has become a hunting ground for virgin brides taken to other states. Even their families lose track of them after a point," Rao said.
The U.N. children's agency UNICEF estimates that 47 percent of girls in India are married before their 18th birthday, with child marriage being more prevalent in rural areas than in cities.
Last year, there were almost 300 cases brought under laws prohibiting child marriage in India, according to the National Crime Record Bureau data. In a first, it also recorded 221 cases of child trafficking.
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)