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None Of These Reasons Justify Why 25% Of Indian Girls Are Married Before 18!

This post is a part of Kaksha Crisis, a campaign supported by Malala Fund to demand for dialogue around the provisions in the New Education Policy 2020. Click here to find out more.

Education is one of the most crucial components for the development of an individual and society as a whole. India has been revered as the land of education and knowledge from Ancient times as home to Taxila, Vikramshila and Nalanda universities.

But women have always stood outside this education system. Sarasvati is the Goddess of knowledge and learning in India. The Goddess is mainly associated with Hinduism, also revered by believers of the Jain religion, as well as some Buddhist sects. Personified images of the deity represent her as holding a Veena in one hand and Vedic manuscripts in the other. In today’s India, this parallel of a woman figure with knowledge and learning comes in stark contrast with the objective reality.

Alternative Realities

Image for representation only.

National Health and Family Survey 2015-16 shows that more than one in four young women aged 20-24 were married in childhood (below age 18). Early marriage sets them up for a lifetime of hardships. They’re less likely to finish their education, and with a ton of responsibilities at a young age, they become full-time caregivers. They are forever trapped in the vicious cycle of economic deprivation and vulnerability to domestic violence. Early marriages also lead to early pregnancies and in some cases, multiple pregnancies, which adversely affect the health of both mother and child.

The ASER 2018 (by NGO Pratham) shows that about 4.1% of girls in India are out of schools in the age group of 11-14, but this percentage goes up considerably (13.5%) for the age group 15-16 years. The teenage girls clearly become the most vulnerable once they are locked out of education. While several factors contribute towards girls dropping out of school, human rights research shows that the greatest obstacles to a girl’s education are child marriage, pregnancy and domestic chores.

Early marriage hampers women’s education, but early marriage itself is a consequence of many socio-economic drivers of our society. All of these factors are responsible for lower education among women. Thus, addressing these issues is important to find a permanent solution to this problem.

Demographic Factors

According to a report, around 8-10% women in the age group of 20-14 were married before they turned 18 in Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Kerela, Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir. This percentage is higher (35-40%) in Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and West Bengal. This data indicates that economically backward, over populous states/regions are more likely to follow this social malpractice.

The poor infrastructure in villages becomes an obstacle to young girls with a lack of necessary facilities such as schools with function toilets, health centres, playgrounds, vocational training centres, etc. They are more likely to drop out under such circumstances. Various studies have shown that better educated young women from economically sound households mostly from urban areas are far less likely to experience early marriage than others.

Role Of Patriarchy

Image for representation only.

Gender-defined roles that make care work as women’s sole responsibility and gender-specific barriers that make men the sole breadwinner are the two most prominent factors that have pushed girls’ education to the back-burner. As a result of this mindset, parents prefer to prioritize boys’ education which further widens the gender gaps in enrollment.

The age-old practice of dowry (only illegal on paper) is also a reason why parents think of girls as a burden. They feel that the daughter is ‘paraya dhan’ (another’s property)—hence a burden on her family. So the families decide where they will invest their money, especially with living expenses increasing day by day.

Currently, India ranks 112 out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2020. So it is not difficult to imagine parents investing their limited resources on their sons and getting rid of the responsibility of their daughters by marrying them off even at a young age. This only results in more problems such as early childbearing, limited access to resources, no agency over their lives or bodies resulting in reproductive health issues and many cases, abuse.

Patriarchy enables society to come up with a lot of gender-biased norms such as:

No Involvement In Decision Making At Any Stage

Gendered norms about ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ expect obedience, submissiveness and sacrifice from girls, and allow entitlement, and power to boys. Girls who marry young are considered docile, ‘pure’ and can be easily molded into family environments of their in-laws. They are required to play a passive role in decisions about their life, and lack of awareness and support makes them oblige.

Misplaced Family Honour

Taking away the right to decision-making does not end with demanding subservience. The society also loves to control women’s sexuality. The honour of the family falls on a girl’s shoulder and fears for girls’ safety, adolescent pregnancy due to ‘love affairs’ further stop family from sending girls out to attain education.

Situations of humanitarian crises or conflict or natural disasters often lead to people losing their livelihoods and resources. In such situations, parents resort to marrying off their girls to “protect” them from sexual violence, or to free themselves from providing for girls with their meagre resources and face any disgrace.

Economic Constraints

covid impact on girls education in india
Image for representation only.

Financial constraints leave girls with limited opportunities. If they somehow complete their education and find a job, they are often stuck with low paying jobs. Families are apprehensive about sending them for jobs in other cities and unavailability of facilities to pursue higher studies in their villages/towns makes marriage the next and final responsibility to be performed by her maternal home.

The importance of women’s education is well recognized today. Not only it elevates the status of women in society and improves their self-esteem, but it also has many long-term benefits for society. An African proverb says, “If we educate a boy, we educate one person. If we educate a woman, we educate a family—and an entire nation.”

Educating a woman will eventually lead to an improvement in various parameters that define a society’s progress. An educated woman, an educated society will have better Infant Mortality Rate (IMR), maternal mortality, lesser or no child marriages, fewer cases of domestic and sexual violence, and improved overall socio-economic growth of a nation.

In 2013, the state government of West Bengal introduced Kanyashree Prakalpa Scheme. It is a conditional cash transfer scheme to improve the status and well-being of girl children in West Bengal. By incentivizing the schooling of all girls and delaying their marriages until the legal age of 18, the scheme is helping girls complete education. This was an attempt by the government to bring behavioral changes in society through positive reinforcement.

Initiatives like these are essential steps in the right direction. However, there is a need for a deeper understanding of the impacts of early marriage on a girl’s education, and in turn, the larger society. Still, scaling up initiatives like Kanyashree can bring about an attitudinal change in society.

To improve the status of girl child education in India, we must address the intersectional barriers that come with our diverse set of population. Community- and region-specific needs should be met, and solutions should be offered accordingly. For example, if a parent is unwilling to send their girl to school fearing safety due to long-distance travel, then we need to look at this from a different perspective compared to someone not sending their girls due to financial constraints or stereotypical mindset.

Our enlightened community leaders and the public must combat gender prejudices and strive to bring attitudinal change. We require more assertive, urgent action among key stakeholders to improve access to quality education for girls and create a safe environment for women and girls by giving them a chance to a better life.

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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.

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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