In remote hamlets of the country, young girls are flexing their muscles, for a just cause.
Sixteen-year-old Nissah (name changed) is part of an adolescent girls’ group in her village in Jharkhand that is trying to break stereotypes and change mind-sets. She regularly attends group meetings and is well aware of how child marriage impacts a child’s health and psychological well-being.
The first battle the Class X student had to fight was in her own backyard. Her parents were adamant that now was the right time to tie the knot. She slammed the door on their proposal and stuck to her decision. This was just the beginning. Age-old beliefs and conventions clashed against the voice of youth, brimming with reason, conviction and confidence.
Nissah was never alone in this. Members of the adolescent group, set up by Child Rights and You (CRY) and its partner, visited the parents and counselled them extensively. Not only did the parents cancel the marriage, they pledged to educate their girl and let her grow in her own space.
“For us, life has always been about what we can and cannot do, as decided by our elders – even if it meant marrying at an early age and to someone we don’t even know. But I am glad things are changing. We are getting a space to express our own,” says Nissah.
In a state where 44% of girls in rural areas are married before their 18th birthday and 13% become mothers in the age-group of 15-19 (NFHS-4 data), this change of heart and mind, even in one family, holds hope.
Across the border, in Kandamal district of Odisha, 13-year-old Chunni (name changed) knew that her parents were desperately looking for a “suitable boy”. She wanted to say no, but could not muster up the courage. Desperate to seek answers, the young girl reached out to CRY’s partner organisation in the area. Soon enough, the girl attended a workshop on child marriage and its impact on society.
Chunni completed the workshop and came home, a different girl. In a frank and open conversation with her parents, she laid bare the chain of events that could follow if she was married off so early in her teens – early marriage, early pregnancy, malnourished baby and so on. The conviction in her voice and the clarity in her reasoning managed to pull off the impossible.
“I was a different person before getting involved in this project. I lacked confidence and was very shy. The four days of training changed me completely,” Chunni adds with a coy smile. The teen has become a role model in her village, where more and more girls are now daring to speak up against a norm that has held sway or ages.
For Bharati (16) (name changed) of Dum Dum, West Bengal, child marriage has left a scar for life. But it has also emboldened her to counsel her peers on the negative impact it can have. About a year ago, Bharati had eloped and married a friend of her brother’s. She had thought marriage would be the answer for all the troubles she had faced in her family thus far. It turned out quite the opposite. Tortured, assaulted and oppressed, the Class X student had no option but to return home.
Today, Bharati regularly attends adolescent groups’ sessions, organised by CRY, and shares her “misadventure” with friends. Together, they keep an eye on young girls in the community who “want” to get married or are being “forced” to tie the knot. Consultations and home visits by the group members are starting to make an impact on the ground.
With UNICEF data on child marriage, indicating a slow but steady drop in incidents of child marriages —from 54% to 27% (2016) — over the past decade, the role of young crusaders like Nissah, Chunni, Bharati and their adolescent groups in this silent “revolution” is growing.
An important aspect of community sensitisation on issues such as child marriage is to create a child-inclusive space and help children to acknowledge their rights and voice their opinions.
According to Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), children have the right to express their views freely in all matters affecting them. It recognizes the fact that children should have the full and final benefit of the rights accorded to them even though they largely abide by the rules of an adult world.
The adolescent girls’ groups and the children’s groups set up by CRY and its partners have managed to create that platform where children come and discuss their problems freely.
Members of the adolescent groups alert concerned people or establish contact with concerned authorities when they see fellow children in trouble or in need of help. The children identify protection-related issues when they see or hear about things around their vicinity; they not only recognise the problems of their friends and peer groups, but come up with solutions for them as well. This helps them to become confident individuals, and it also reaffirms their faith in themselves, the system as well as the society.
For Nissah, the support that she got from the group in her village emboldened her to take the decisive step. In Chunni’s case, the training workshop made her confident enough to speak out what she had known all along.
Across the six eastern states of Jharkhand, Bihar, Assam, West Bengal, Manipur and Odisha, there are 449 children’s groups that work in close coordination with CRY and its partners. Around 213 adolescent girls’ groups are working with communities and stakeholders to address issues that matter to them.
As India celebrates its 73rd Independence Day, the silent ‘revolution’ is helping the young minds to find a voice. The change has begun…
Note: The author is the Regional Director (East) at CRY