1 In 3 Of The World’s Child Brides Are Indian. Here’s How It Can Change.

Reena (name changed) woke up early one morning, feeling extremely excited. She was going home to see her family after a long time. More importantly, her mother had promised that she would be getting new clothes and jewellery that day.

Reena wondered why her mother had instructed her not to talk about it with her friends or anyone else at school. Being young and truly wanting to share her happiness, she shared her good news with a few of her friends. Reena hoped that they wouldn’t spread the word or else she would be teased by everyone at school. She took a bath and got ready, waiting for her parents to come and take her home. There was going to be a celebration at home and all her cousins would be home too! She could barely contain her excitement.

As the day wore on, nobody came. She went to the gate a couple of times and waited but she couldn’t see any familiar faces. There was a commotion at the gate earlier in the day but nobody told her what it was about, A little bit dejected, she forgot about it and started playing with her friends at school.

While Reena was getting ready, her parents had come to the school and asked that she be sent on leave for a few days. Reena’s friends, having understood the gravity of what was happening to Reena, immediately informed the staff and principal. They held a meeting and took a joint decision to not send Reena home, at any cost.

The commotion Reena heard about was her parents threatening the staff and principal when they refused to let her go home with them. The principal casually informed the parents that Reena was in the middle of exams and could not be sent home. The parents were enraged but were powerless to take action on the staff right then. They made a scene and went back home, without their daughter.

The celebration waiting for Reena at home, where she would be getting new clothes and jewellery was her own wedding, at the tender age of 12. She had been told that she was getting married but which 12-year-old girl truly understands what marriage is and the future implications of that on her life?

When the principal of this school narrated this story to me, she wasn’t happy. She continued to tell me that what felt like a win for them was in reality, a delayed defeat. They were forced to send Reena home for the holidays and during that time, her parents got her married.

This photo is from one of the Bodhshalas in Alwar, run by Bodh Shiksha Samiti. I clicked this during one of my visits way back in 2013.

This is a story of a girl from a remote village in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. What she was looking forward with childlike enthusiasm to, as a day of dress-up and magic, would shackle her to a life of responsibility that she had not knowingly signed up for.

She is not alone. One of the state-run residential schools I visited in Jodhpur revealed that 25% of their total intake of 100 students were already married. It took me some time to let that information sink in. I remember walking out of her room and looking at the faces of all the students in the school. My heart broke. My eyes were brimming with tears and I was trying to hold it back in.

That’s a fairly large percentage for girls in just one school to be robbed of their agency so imagine those who still aren’t in any sort of formal education system, in that village, or block or district? What might their plight be?

I know that most of you reading this will probably be like, “Enough with the sentiments already!” and hit back with the predictable statement, “Show me the numbers!”

Well, since you asked: 102 million girls and women were married before the age of 15, in India. India is home to close to 33% of the world’s child brides. Rajasthan is home to 15 million of India’s child brides (UNICEF, 2019).

The next obvious question would be to ask, “Why are India’s numbers so high?” UNICEF in their latest report on child marriage in India says that the incidence is high where there is less education, poverty and in rural households. My recent conversations with principals and staff at some schools across Rajasthan opened my eyes to the depths of how poverty has a direct correlation with child marriage.

In some communities, the death of a grandfather in the house will lead to young girls in the family getting married. The reason? The grandfather’s death will be celebrated with a feast for the community members and that is a large cost. Parents then decide to include their children’s wedding celebrations along with this, because one feast in a lifetime is all they have saved up for.

The catch here is that most of their children are fairly young and it’s not like they truly have any agency, now do they? This practice of clubbing together events is also done for siblings, cousins, etc. This led to one of my former 15-year-old students in Jaipur to get married. To read more about my student, click here.

Source: UNICEF.

Child Marriage, Female Illiteracy And Domestic Violence

Child marriage is a violation of human rights. Supporting the marriage of a child is taking away their agency to make responsible decisions for themselves. It limits their skills, knowledge, resources, social support, mobility and autonomy.

Female illiteracy was found to be a leading cause for a high incidence in child marriage. A study conducted by the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) in two of India’s backwards states, Bihar and Jharkhand in 2004 revealed that girls married before 18 were twice as likely to report being beaten, slapped or threatened by their husbands that girls who married later (ICRW, 2005). They were more likely to report being forced to have sex without consent with their husbands.

This research also brought to the limelight how these women had low bargaining power to have conversations with their husbands about the use of contraception, when they wanted to have children and how many children to have. There are numerous studies that show women who are married as children, also end up having children at a very young age, putting their health and their child’s health in jeopardy. They also end up succumbing to the demands of procreating more, leading to larger families, which they cannot afford to maintain (UNESCO, 2017).

This leads to cyclical poverty, which they cannot get out of, however hard they try. Child brides also often show signs symptomatic of child sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress, including feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and severe depression (Khan, N and M. Lynch, 1997).

The World Health Organisation in a study also found that girls with low levels of education and adolescents between the ages of 15 and 19 are at a higher risk of violence than better educated or older women (WHO, 2005).

High Female Illiteracy Levels In Rajasthan

According to the ASER Report of 2014, Rajasthan recorded 69.7%, the highest percentage of mothers across the Indian states with no schooling. The female literacy rate of the state is 52%, as per the 2011 Census (the last year for which data is available).

These numbers tell us a story where gender inequality is still in an alarming state. While interacting with close to 200 women aged 18 to 30, from close to 25 districts across Rajasthan who come from both rural and urban areas, this is what they had to say as to why girls aren’t still in school, despite many interventions made by the state with the help of national and international NGOs.

  • Girls are considered to be a financial burden on parents with no ROI (Return On Investment) as they will be getting married and going off to live with another family,
  • Parents don’t think that their girls are safe in school as the closest schools to their villages are still a few kilometres away, which means that they are walking that distance alone,
    When parents have many children, they both need to work to make ends meet which means that the younger children need to be taken care of along with other household chores and that responsibility falls on the slightly older girl or girls,
  • Parents don’t see how education can truly make a difference in their girl child’s life,
  • Educating a girl might mean that they be better qualified that the boys they get married to, which could cause hurting their egos (I actually had a staff member whose sister had acid thrown on her face because she was smarter than the boys in her class and they wanted to teach her a lesson),
  • Girls end up being pulled out of school for a lot of household work, making them miss a lot of classes and when they come back, they’ve missed so much that they can’t keep up. This leads to them getting discouraged and deciding to drop out of school themselves,
  • There is a lot of stigma against educated girls/women in their societies which make them get teased, laughed at and isolated. Peer pressure also forces them to drop out, and
  • Girls are made to feel like their role in society is to get married and be a good daughter, wife and then mother. Education doesn’t fit into this journey.

Ending Child Marriage On The Global Agenda

At the end of all this despair, is some respite, I guess. Ending Child Marriage is officially on the global agenda because as part of the Sustainable Development Goal 5, which aims to achieve gender equality, and empower all women and girls, the target is to eliminate all harmful practices such as child, early and forced marriage along with female genital mutilation, by 2030.

We have numbers that show that the number of child marriages in India has halved, with only 7% of girls getting married before the age of 15 and 27% before the age of 18 (UNICEF).

That being said, it would be foolish of me not to mention that India has had legislation in place to protect our young girls since 2006. Under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA), 2006, the marriage between a man above 18 years of age with a woman below 18 years of age, is punishable with imprisonment of two years, a fine of up to ₹1 lakh or both.

This only begs me to question, “What more can we do?”

What could have been done to ensure that Reena from that remote village in Jodhpur didn’t get married during those summer holidays? Who should be held responsible? When can we truly say that we have tried enough?

I have been thinking about this and discussing this with a few of my friends, family and fellow development practitioners. These are a few of the solutions we came up with.

Source: UNICEF.

Solutions To End Child Marriage

  • Educate our young mothers on the perils of child marriage and ask them to stop their own children from getting married before they turn 18,
  • Educate and empower our communities to see the role of women outside being daughters, wives and mothers,
  • Remind women of their worth and repeatedly tell them that their voices need to be heard and that their opinions matter, be it about their role in society, their sexuality, education, discriminatory practices, reproduction, contraception, etc.
  • Creating a platform where women are encouraged to form groups among themselves to talk and share what they’re going through, to empower each other to fight against gender malpractices,
  • Empower young women in schools to go back to their communities and create awareness on the perils of child marriage,
  • Teaching girls in school life skills that would come of use as equal members in a society like teaching them how to mediate/negotiate during conflicts and arguments, how to stand up for themselves, how to overcome challenges and difficulties and empathise with those going through similar situations, and
  • Use case studies of women from their communities who have studied, taken up professional careers and are still getting married and having children.

I want to end this post on a positive note by narrating the story of a young girl from a Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya in Rajasthan. Having first been brought to school when she was 10 years old, she was introduced to the concept of education and aspirations for the first time. Having open conversations about child marriage, etc. in the classrooms and in parallel, conversations about being empowered to explore the world of professions and careers, outside of being confined to her home, being made educated and suddenly aware, she was slowly transforming.

At the end of her tenure at this residential school, she went back and fought with her parents to let her continue her studies at the age of 13. She was a child bride, having been married at a very young age. She refused to go to her husband’s house and demanded that their marriage be terminated.

What you and I see as a small win is truly a huge victory for her because she has developed the agency to stand up for herself and negotiate with her parents on making choices that involve her. We have a long way to go but this is truly a start! Please go and check out what UNICEF does and has been doing in countries to ensure we hit that target of ending child marriage by 2030!

Featured image provided by author.
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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.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

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.

Read more about his campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

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.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

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.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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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