Would-be Indian child bride fights back and helps others

Rajni Devi (center, in light pink) helps coach girls in her small village, in Uttar Pradesh, on how to get an education and achieve dreams beyond marriage.

Uttar Pradesh, India (CNN)Rajni Devi liked school and had big dreams. She was not going to end up like so many other girls in India: married off as a child bride.

Rajni was 14 years old when her mother told her she must get married, but she refused. She was determined to stay in school, and she wasn't ready to be a mother yet.
However, for a girl in rural India, it wasn't as simple as just saying no.
    According to UNICEF, India has the highest number of child brides in the world, with about 17 million children between the ages of 10 and 19 in the country who are married.
    This despite the fact that child marriage in India was officially outlawed in 2006. And earlier this year, in an attempt to protect child brides, India's Supreme Court ruled that sex with minors was considered rape.
    Despite these laws, poverty, concerns over security, and cultural and social norms often drive families and communities to continue the practice, experts say.
    But Rajni fought back.
    She fought hard. She spent weeks fighting, reasoning with and coaxing her parents. Every day, she told them she didn't want to get married. She'd rather die than get married, she said. She reminded her mother of her own struggles as a teenager spent married and bearing children.
    Eventually, Rajni's parents gave in.
    Ranji pictured with her parents in Uttar Pradesh, northern India.
    But their daughter had only just begun. She was determined to change things, not just for herself, but for other girls too.
    In the months that followed, she stopped five other child marriages in her community. She coached the girls in her small village, in Uttar Pradesh, on how to intervene and talk to their parents.
    She told them that they could get an education and achieve dreams beyond marriage.
    "When my marriage was stopped, it gave me courage," she says.


    Rajni, now 18, has used her courage to help a generation of girls in her village stay in school and avoid marriage.
    She has won honors and acclaim for her efforts and now leads a self-help and empowerment group of twenty girls in her village.
    Rajni spoke to CNN at a training camp for recipients of the Girl Icon Fellowship, a prize she was awarded by the Milaan Foundation, a nonprofit organization that gives promising teenage girls a two-year fellowship which helps them drive change in their communities.
    Rajni explains why child marriage is so embedded in Indian society by telling her own story.
    "I didn't know much about what happens after getting married," Rajni remembers.