As the sun awakens through the cloudy night sky, 25-year-old Raj Kumar rises to bathe in his water tank, puts the usual vermilion mark on his forehead, performs his morning ritual in the village temple and finally gets started on his everyday affairs of helping villagers tide over important decisions.
One farmer in his village asks him for an appropriate time to buy cattle to plough his fields, another puts the horoscope of his sick son swiftly into his hands and asks him about his recovery, the next person asks him about his stolen jewel, the questions keep pouring in and Raj Kumar promptly provides appropriate advice, in exchange for a fee, sometimes followed by either a meal or gifts.
It is only when a parent comes with the horoscope of their daughter for her marriage that he exercises caution; Raj Kumar is ready to trade his livelihood for a girl’s future.
“Many families wish to marry or trade their daughters, either without their consent or at an extremely young age, when girls can’t make informed decisions. I have made this clear to the villagers who come with such requests – I will never play a role in destroying a girl’s life,” says Raj Kumar passionately.
In India, where around 12 million married children are under the age of 10, Raj Kumar’s stance is remarkable. Raj Kumar belongs to the Nainwa district of Rajasthan, where the majority of women are married off before they reach the age of 18.
Raj Kumar, who hails from an upper caste Brahmin background, is the first priest in his family. His father worked as a farmer on their 2 hectares of family land. After his father’s death, Raj Kumar, who had just graduated from college, faced a declining farming economy and was forced to earn a livelihood at the age of 20.
“I had the responsibility of finding a good husband for each of my five sisters. I left college and was encouraged to become the village priest because our village had none. To save money, I married off two of my sisters, who were 15 and 16 years of age respectively, in one ceremony,” says a visibly embarrassed Raj Kumar.
The priest is the most important figure of a village and every person looks at him as part and parcel of their household, consulting him before doing almost anything.
“Honestly, I have arranged many child marriages, but there has always been a feeling of guilt. With the kind of position and respect, I hold in this village, when I realised that I, too, could use this platform to influence the men, I started volunteering as a village animator. It makes me feel more responsible about my position in the village,” says Raj Kumar.
The Hero Academy , which is an India-focused initiative of the Women and Girls Lead Global program, uses ‘men only spaces’ to address the issues of safety for women and girls in rural and marginalised urban belts. Raj Kumar was endowed with the task of mobilising men and boys, using documentary films and activities.
“The experience of working as an animator has had a huge impact on my behaviour and outlook towards women and girls. One day, while surveying and interviewing girls, I met a handicapped girl who had been sold for a price to a young boy. A few years later, the boy refused to accept the girl as his wife, which not only destroyed the girl’s future but also invited a lot of social stigma. This left a huge impact on me and I felt responsible for all the young girls in my village,” says Raj Kumar.
“There are times when I encourage the men and boys to meet in my house so that I am able to tell them that change begins at home. My wife and I are equals,” says Raj Kumar, as he enters through the narrow passage of his low ceiling, two room mud house, with a tray of hot tea cups.