By Nazeef Mollah:
Santwana Kar stands out among the thousands of girls who, like her, are enrolled in a post-graduate programme; at the age 22, this confident and motivated young woman from West Bengal has more than a theoretical understanding of her chosen field of study – Social Work. Born to parents who were daily wage labourers, Santwana was always interested in learning. But her parents had other plans. “Life seemed to hit its lowest when they said, ‘It’s time to stop studies!’ It meant I would soon be married off,” she recalls. However, Santwana did not submit to this wonted practice and is now actively involved in helping others stand their ground too.
As she challenged the tradition of child marriage, this resilient adolescent came into contact with the Child in Need Institute (CINI). Here she received training in life skills and leadership, as well as how to counsel her peers in sexual and reproductive health. Within five years, she became a ‘master trainer’ at CINI, and in October last year, she was appointed as a ‘community facilitator’ of the Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (a health programme by the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare), where her role is to help adolescent children deal with issues ranging from health to substance abuse and gender-based violence.
When young girls like Santwana counsel their peers who are hungry for education and a better life for themselves and their families, discussions, especially about ‘taboo’ issues, are much more casual and easier. Sometimes there’s also a need for an intervention. Once, Santwana, along with her friends, helped rescue an underage girl from being married against her wishes. At the time, Santwana was still in her teens! So, in her own small way this young woman has added a drop or two to the ocean of nameless figures and statistics that our government brings out periodically.
According to the National Family Health Survey-4 (2015-16), the percentage of women (age 20-24) in West Bengal who were married before they were 18 years old, came down from 53.3 to 40.7% and so did the total fertility rate from 2.3 to 1.8 percent since the last survey (NFHS-3 in 2005-06). So, it appears that girls are not only getting married at a more advanced age, they’re also having less children. This indicates greater involvement in decisions about their lives.
Santwana’s days as a graduate student in Political Science were no less eventful. In 2011, she went to Kathmandu to take part in the South Asia Initiative to End Violence Against Children. In 2013, she joined the National Youth Corps. Maybe she’s just born with an extra helping of solicitude.
Like Santwana, 15-year old child bride Papiya Khatoon is also trained by the same organisation to become a peer leader. Currently a student of Class IX, Papiya was married off at the age of 14 by her mother, who was struggling to make ends meet looking after three daughters on her own.
Hers is a painful story but Papiya displays surprising grit and determination and an unyielding love for learning. Although her in-laws had agreed to let her take her Secondary Exam under the West Bengal state Board, post marriage Papiya was not allowed to do so. Instead, she was physically and sexually abused. While she managed to escape after several attempts, an intervention by CINI helped her get a restraining order against her husband. Her life is finally, back on track. This brilliant student who once felt that “life has no meaning” is now “thriving” in her role as a student, and she hopes to be a “self-made, successful member of society.”
CINI, like any organisation engaged in similar work, might have plenty of similar stories to share about the rescue and rehabilitation of these young women. However, what’s really remarkable, is the agency of these young women, first, in improving their own lives, and in turn bringing about the winds of change in the lives of others in their community.