By Emma Batha
CASABLANCA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - At the age of 14 Usha Choudary was betrothed to a man she had never met. She refused to go through with the marriage. When her parents insisted, she threatened to kill herself.
Choudary wanted to stay at school and break the cycle of child marriage and domestic abuse that blights millions of women's lives in India, and which nearly destroyed her own mother, who was married at 14.
After years of violent arguments, Choudary finally managed to persuade her parents not to marry her off. Today she runs a grassroots organization working to stop child marriage in her home state of Rajasthan.
"Ending child marriage comes from my heart because of everything I went through," she said, describing a childhood scarred by witnessing the violence her mother suffered at the hands of her alcoholic father and in-laws.
India has more child marriages than any other country, accounting for two in five child brides worldwide.
Although child marriage is illegal, nearly half of girls get wed before their eighteenth birthday and nearly one in five before they turn 15, according to U.N. data.
As a child, Choudary saw her young cousins married off one by one. But it didn't cross her mind that she could be too, and she had no idea what her family was plotting when she went to visit her grandparents one summer holiday.
"Lots of people arrived by taxi. Suddenly all the guests and my family came down from the guest room and started all kinds of engagement (rituals) - there were rings, jewelry and ornaments, and they put the sindoor on my forehead - the red powder mark at the hairline that signifies a Hindu woman is married.
"They did all this in five minutes because they knew I was an outspoken and strong-minded person. Then the guests are gone and I am crying - really crying because I did not want to get married."
To this day she has no idea who she was engaged to because grooms do not attend the bride's betrothal ceremony.
"In India marriage is not a personal decision, it's a community decision. If you do not marry your daughter there will be social pressure," she said.
"The situation was very shameful for my parents. I was beaten many times, there was lots of fighting but I carried on living with them because I wanted to change their mentality.
"If I had gone through with that marriage I would never have cut that chain of child marriage and violence in my family," she said. "No one in my family has been married as a child since."
Choudary told her story on the sidelines of an international conference on child marriage in Casablanca hosted by Girls Not Brides, a global partnership committed to ending a practice affecting some 720 million girls and women.
Worldwide some 15 million girls are married off each year, depriving them of education and opportunities, and forcing them to go through pregnancies before their bodies are ready. Sexual and domestic violence are also common.
Child marriage is a long established tradition in Choudary's home state of Rajasthan, and not so long ago girls were even married off as babies and toddlers.
When she was about 12, Choudary says her mother got so desperate that she considered killing herself and all her children. "She had no choices because she wasn't educated, but she didn't do it because she said her children still had hope."
Choudary became a teacher before co-founding Vikalp, which tackles child marriage and violence and discrimination against women. She says they have already stopped hundreds of child marriages and helped keep thousands of girls in school.
"Education is key for ending child marriage," said Choudary who now lives in Udaipur. "When a child marries her dreams die, she loses her freedom, her choices, her friends, her network, her opportunities."
She says Vikalp tries to persuade parents that keeping their daughters in education can lead to better jobs which in turn helps lift the whole family out of poverty.
Her campaigning work also targets priests, beauticians and DJs who may provide services at the weddings of children.
Now 38, Choudary says the pressure on her to marry has subsided, but her single status still attracts comment.
"I want to create an example and show that a single woman can do anything. There is an alternative to marriage," she said.
(Editing by Ros Russell)