When we’re not here

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Neha at reception a few days after her wedding

Three years ago our 14-year-old friend Neha was married off illegally. As we were very close to the family the preparation was done in secret, so we wouldn’t know about it and couldn’t stop it. I found out what was happening halfway through the wedding (which was only supposed to be for her older sister’s marriage), caused a scene and was asked to leave.

Since then we have tried to support Neha any way we could. But we’ve seen marriage transpire almost exactly like we would have predicted. Her husband is negligent, her in-laws abusive. She often goes a day without eating despite preparing food for the rest of her family. After false promises that she could continue in school, she has still not been given the slightest opportunity to advance past her 8th-grade education. After false promises from the husband that he would wait until she was ready, Neha gave birth to a baby boy at 15 years of age, just 17 months after the wedding.

As she became more depressed, Neha began looking for ways to escape the situation. Two months ago she left the home and began living with her mother again. Her own home had always been problematic, but at least she ate. It became the best of two bad options.

The husband’s family immediately went to the police and filed a report against her, accusing her of running away and taking the baby. Neha’s family went along to the station to support her, as did Peregrine. Though no one shared the fact that Neha was still just 17 years old, the police appeared to side with her. However, they demanded multiple return visits.

While waiting for the next appointment with the police, Neha’s home situation deteriorated. It became clear that several of her family members didn’t want her in the house and were hoping her in-laws would just take her off their hands. Neha became more despondent and felt unwanted everywhere. She spoke to us about helping her get a divorce, and disowning her own family as well. Peregrine and I began brainstorming options for how we could provide for Neha and her son’s care in a separate situation away from both severely dysfunctional families.

It came to a head in the what the police designated as the final meeting. Neha’s in-laws told the police they had made their decision – they were washing their hands of her, she was not part of the family anymore. They wouldn’t support her and her son in any way.

Neha assumed that meant she would be staying with her own family for the time being. But on the way home, the family left her on the street and told her to go to her husband. She pointed out that her husband had just abandoned her. They didn’t care, they weren’t taking her either, they already had enough problems.

And so Neha and her son were left that way, on the street, with nothing.

In a panic Neha ran away to the closest train station. When she got there she called us from the cell phone she had secured from her younger brother. She wanted help, wanted any way out. I (Stranger) was able to go down to the station and get her. Peregrine called the safe house and immediately secured a place for her. For now Neha and her son are safe.

Actually, that’s not how it happened. Because Peregrine and I were out of town when Neha called. We tried to come up with anyone from the basti who we could trust to get Neha in this sensitive situation, but all three of our prime choices were out of town at the moment as well. Peregrine enlisted the help of the safe house, secured a place for her there, and got two former safe house girls to rush down to the train station to find Neha. Unfortunately it took them over an hour to get there, and they didn’t know what Neha looked like. Neha stopped answering our phone calls. The safe house girls got there and couldn’t find her. We don’t know where she is.

It’s considered accepted wisdom in our circles that you’re not supposed to believe you can control anything. It’s considered arrogant to think you can save someone. It doesn’t depend on you.

Yet as Paul Farmer writes in Mountains Beyond Mountains,

“The problem is, if I don’t work this hard, someone will die who doesn’t have to. That sounds megalomaniacal. I wouldn’t have said that to you before I’d taken you to Haiti and you had seen that it was manifestly true.”

It feels like the majority of time we’re out of town, something bad happens. We get a call that someone has run away, or someone has died of a fever, or someone has had a mental illness episode, or some disaster has struck the slum. And we think, “If we had been there, what could we have done to help? Could we have made a difference?” But we weren’t there.

Then again, often we are there and the terrible stuff happens anyway and there’s nothing we can do but provide comfort. But sometimes, on occasion, it does feel like we make a difference.

The night that Neha called us for help and then suddenly stopped calling, I was in a slow-burn panicked state through the next day. Hundreds of miles away and there was nothing to do, I had to let go. We prayed, hoped that God was taking care of her. But there was nothing we could do.

Later the next day, Neha called us secretly. She told us that that night she had been located at the train station by her husband’s brother. Either he didn’t agree with the family’s decision, or there had been a change of heart, or it had been some sort of bluff to attempt to scare her, or something. In the end her husband’s family took her back in and made promises that the abuse would stop and her husband would provide for her. She cut the call short when someone walked in, and made clear later that she can only talk to us in secret, but she continues to give us updates in bits and pieces as she is able, here and there.

We have little hope for things going well for Neha. Despite the promises her husband and his family have little motivation to change and few spiritual, cultural, or community resources to encourage such change. Our connection to them is very limited and we are not entirely trusted. Neha claims to be hopeful, Peregine and I expect the situation to revert back to the status quo soon.

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