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It’s 2018, And I’ve Just Been Invited To A Marriage Of A 12-Year-Old With A 13-Year-Old

Four days of induction fieldwork in a Gujarati village was the first official exposure to rural realities in the life of this postgraduate Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA) student.

My fieldwork was in the year 2013 in Vrajpar, a small village in the Surendranagar district of Gujarat. It was then that I came across the practise of open defecation for the first time in my life. My host family didn’t have a toilet facility in their house. In fact, very few households in the village had their own toilets. We, who were unwilling to go to the fields for nature’s call, were guided to one such neighbourhood house. The lady of the family welcomed us with pleasure and proudly told us that she was one of those few women in the village who made sure that they have a toilet in their house. We called her ‘Ben’, the Gujarati version of ‘Behen’ (sister).

Even after the induction fieldwork, she kept in touch with me. My Gujarati has not progressed from Kem Cho and Majama (“How are you?” and “I am fine“) in the last four years. Still, I talk with them over phone at least once in two months. Our conversations are hilarious because Ben doesn’t know any other language than Gujarati, and I don’t even have proper fluency in Hindi.

An hour ago, I got a call from her. To my surprise, Rupa, the daughter of Ben’s brother, was there on the other end. Ben had something very important to share with me and she asked Rupa to talk, as she is the one who can speak fluently in Hindi.

The news was this: “Raja (Ben’s son) is getting married. Ben wants you to be there for the wedding.

I was baffled for a moment. I still could remember the boy who was walking with the school bag.

Is he not going to the school?” my question was quite sudden.

Yes yes, he is in class 8. He is 13 years old,” She said.

Who is he getting married to?” I could hardly contain my curiosity.

Rupa told me that the girl’s name is Rani, a 12-year-old from Dhrangadhra, the nearest town to Vrajpar. The wedding would be right after Holi, and Ben wanted to make sure that I would attend.

I actually didn’t know how to respond to that. I have never heard them talking so happily. But in my mind, I already started thinking of what is going to happen – yes, it’s a child marriage! I remembered the visuals of child marriage from the movie “Parched” and I literally had to shake my head to come out of that thought.

Priya and Priti are also getting married this year,” Rupa told me again. They are the daughters of my host family. Priya is 17 and Priti is 13 years old now. I still remember Priya asking me to request her father to send her to the school in Dhrangadhra, the town eight kms away from the village. She was 13 then, and the school in the village only taught till class 8. Most girls in the village haven’t studied beyond class 8, and Priya wanted to study at least till class 12. I did talk with her father then, but he didn’t really show much enthusiasm. Now, both Priya and Priti have stopped going to school and their wedding is in February.

You will surely come, right?” She asked me again and I don’t have an answer to that yet.

We are living in the country with the highest number of child brides in the world. 47 % of the female population in India is married before the age of 18. Until the day before, these figures were just statistics to me. And now, I was invited to be part of one such event, which is a criminal offence in the eyes of the law.

I am still thinking, “What should I do here?” I know that the age-old traditions and practices cannot be changed in a day. This is not an odd event, but the story of almost every person of Vrajpar and many such villages in India. We say education can break the bonds of child marriage. Yet, this is what I am witnessing. One thing is sure. Just having a law doesn’t mean that any social evil can be controlled – be it child marriage or rape or whatever. As long as the society considers the birth of a girl child as a curse and the patriarchal customs continue, progress is such a mirage. Misogyny is embedded in our societal systems and we practice it unconsciously. These ingrained manifestations of powerlessness have to be acknowledged, accepted and worked upon.

Names of the people involved have been changed.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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