|Girls not brides A woman signs a pledge against child marriage in the presence |
of Urmul Trust volunteers, officials of Zila Parishad
and people from Unicef Rajasthan
The same year The Elders, an independent group of global leaders brought together in 2007 by Nelson Mandela to work together for peace and human rights, began to forge a global civil society alliance for a world without child marriage. Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage brought together non-government organisations working all over the world to end this harmful practice. The Urmul Trust based out of Bikaner in the Indian state of Rajasthan is one of them. Its managing trustee Arvind Ojha was one of the four Indians who participated in The Elders global strategy meeting in Ethiopia to end child marriage.
Five years later, at a function on February 17, 2015, he smiled with satisfaction when a “gram panchayat” (village council) in Bikaner in northern Rajasthan declared itself child marriage free. He marvelled at his trust’s work when people of the “gram panchayat”, including girls, took a pledge to never allow child marriage in their milieu.
It was a pleasant morning when Benisar, 61 kilometres from Bikaner district headquarters, became Rajasthan’s first child marriage free “gram panchayat”. Its sarpanch (village council head) Shravan Kumar was later quoted by “The Times of India”, an Indian English daily, as saying, “Child marriage is a social evil. We gathered to fight against it. Still, some child marriages are solemnised secretly in the villages. Now, we have taken a pledge not to allow child marriages any more in our “gram panchayat”.” A member of Bikaner district council Parvati Devi said, “We lost our freedom; we will not let our daughters lose theirs.”
A few hours later, Surjansar, 34 kilometres from Benisar, became the second child marriage free “gram panchayat”. A prominent villager, Om Prakash Tarar, addressing the gathering, said: “We assure you that we will work for making other villages in our neighbourhood child marriage free. We take a pledge to rid our block of this social evil. We want to make Sri Dungargarh Rajasthan’s first child marriage free block.”
Urmul Trust volunteers, officials of Zila Parishad, people from Unicef Rajasthan were present when villagers in both the “gram panchayats” signed a banner pledging against child marriage. Adriano Sofri, a well-known Italian intellectual, writer and journalist, who was in India to deepen child protection issues and the root causes of related social problems, regarding the condition of the girl child, child marriage, trafficking and more in general the lack of opportunities of vulnerable girls and groups, was also witness to the two functions. Sofri collaborates with “La Repubblica”, an Italian daily. He has written about the two “gram panchayats” in the newspaper on his return.
On October 11, 2012, the world celebrated the first-ever International Day of the Girl Child. The day was embraced globally as a moment to celebrate the girl child and to call for greater action to protect her rights, dignity and enable her to fulfil her potential. As a principal barrier to the development of girls and their wider communities, organisations around the world emphasised that it is high time to tackle child marriage. The United Nations chose to mark the occasion by focusing on the issue of child marriage, led by Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s call for all of us “to do our part to let girls be girls, not brides”.
Ojha was also present at the first ever girl summit on 22 July 2014 in London. The summit built on growing recognition that child marriage and female genital mutilation hold back millions of girls. The need for urgent action was emphasised by the launch of new data from Unicef which showed that worldwide more than 700 million women alive today were married or entered into union before their 18th birthday. This is equivalent to 10 per cent of the world’s population. An October 2014 Girls Not Brides publication titled “Understanding The Scale of Child Marriage: A User Guide”, predicts that if there is no reduction in child marriage, 1.2 billion girls will marry as children by 2050 — equivalent to India’s population.
India is at top of the 10 countries with the highest absolute numbers (in thousands) of child marriage (“Vogelstein, R, Ending Child Marriage, How elevating the status of girls advances US foreign policy objectives, Council on Foreign Relations, 2013”). India, the report mentions, has 10,063,000 women between 20 and 24 years of age who were married before they were 15. According to the “UNICEF State of the World’s Children: In Numbers: Every Child Counts, 2014”, India is eighth among the 10 countries with the highest rates of marriage before 15.
It was in the backdrop of these stark statistics that Urmul Trust, named after Uttar Rajasthan Milk Union Limited (Urmul), took up a special project in tribal village Chundhi in Jaisalmer district in February 2014 — one year before Benisar and Surjansar in Bikaner became child marriage free panchayats. The trust told the community that a child bride was neither physically nor emotionally ready to become a wife or a mother; that girls married before the legal age (18 years) were at far greater risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth, becoming infected with HIV/AIDS and suffering domestic violence. The community was sensitised on the issue with the help of opinion leaders, including religious gurus. The trust understood that dropping out of school increased a girl’s vulnerability to child marriage and hence worked with school management committees to ensure girls dropout rates fell. It worked with the youth groups to develop them as pressure groups.
Chundhi soon became the first village in the state to declare itself child marriage-free.
The initial strategy was to focus on villages. With Benisar and Surjansar, the focus has shifted to “gram panchayats” (which have more than one village). “We realised with a little more effort, we could declare an entire “gram panchayat” child marriage free,” says Ojha.
Recalling the ground work, Ojha says, “In the initial few meetings with the villagers, we identified people who were pro the issue. We prepared them for leadership, felicitated them time and again, called them to Bikaner meetings, and built their capacity to take ownership of the movement. The idea was to build a mechanism that will sustain the movement against child marriage.”
The result is people like 19-year-old Poonam Sankhla in Benisar and 20-year-old Manoj Meghwal in Dhirdesar Purohitan. A second year student of Bachelor’s course in Arts, Poonam is now a full-time volunteer with Urmul Trust. “Child marriage takes away our childhood, forces us to drop out of school,” she says as she recounts how girls of the village got together on February 9 this year for beating “thali” (a utensil) to announce birth of a girl in the village. Traditionally, “thali”-beating is done to announce a boy’s birth. Benisar girls led by Poonam broke the convention.
On January 26, 2012, 28-year-old Osho Jigyasu Siddh, leader of a village youth group in Benisar, made the tradition compulsory for birth of a girl child. Three days later, when a girl was born in village health worker Neetu Kanwar’s family, she beat “thali”.
Manoj’s elder sister didn’t study beyond class 10, but she wants to study “at least till graduation level”. An elected panchayat representative Puja Kanwar, 23, says she was married at 17. “I know what child marriage does to a woman so I won’t let my daughters get married before the legal age,” she says.
It is people such as Poonam, Jigyasu and Puja Kanwar who will act as internal pressure against child marriage in these villages. “If we can rotate the wheel for five years, the static energy will keep it moving forever,” says Ojha as he shows me around the Urmul Trust office near the bus stand in Bikaner.
“Ownership by a panchayat is a sustainable model since panchayats are constitutional bodies. If we can run this model successfully in the target population of 150 villages, we can showcase it to government and get it replicated elsewhere,” he adds.
In Rajasthan, the present percentage of married women aged between 20 and 24 years who were married before the legal age of 18 years is 51.2 per cent (54.7 per cent in rural and 36.9 per cent in urban areas) according to marriage data in the Annual Health Survey 2012-2013.
The reasons are many. Trade of girls due to poor sex ratio, poverty and fear of infamy (following affairs) are some of them.
Rakesh Kumar is a writer based in Jaipur, India