India: Saying No to Child Marriage

The inaugural International Day of the Girl Child will take place on 11 October 2012. For its first observance, this year’s Day focuses on child marriage, which is a fundamental human rights violation and has an impact on all aspects of a girl’s life, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

**© UNICEF Varanasi/2012/Madhok

“Child marriage denies a girl of her childhood, disrupts her education, limits her opportunities, increases her risk of violence and abuse, jeopardizes her health and therefore constitutes an obstacle to the achievement of nearly every Millennium Development Goal and the development of healthy communities.” For more information about child marriage, click here.

By Rajat Madhok*Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, India – Pratigya hears that Chandra Devi is planning to marry off her daughter Basanti. She picks up her shoulder bag and calls on Chandra Devi.

What follows is a friendly, but uncomfortable, discussion. Basanti is barely 15 years old. Pratigya has come to discuss child marriage.

Broaching a Difficult Subject

Pratigya and Chandra Devi talk about the reasons that parents marry their daughters at a young age. They also discuss the importance of continuing education for girls.

The conversation turns towards the perils of child marriage.

Later on, Pratigya will recall this conversation: “It’s a common belief in most families here that if they don’t marry off their daughters at an early age, the girls may enter into a relationship with a boy, which will bring dishonour to their family…I told her that we, as parents, should consider a different approach…Mothers should constantly advise the daughter as a friend and not as a mother. These girls will listen to their parents out of reason and love, and not out of fear of getting beaten up.”

Protection of Children

Pratigya lives in Bhawrak, a small hamlet in Mirzapur District, in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. With a population of almost 200 million, the state also has the largest number of children in the country.

Thanks to generous funding from the Ikea Foundation, UNICEF is supporting the government of Uttar Pradesh to set up Child Protection Committees across the state. Now, a Child Protection Committee has been formed in Bhawrak.

The committee provides a safe environment in which people can talk about issues without the fear of backlash or being stigmatized.About 154 families live in Bhawrak, and all of them belong to a socially excluded and marginalized caste. Until recently, children here seldom went to school, and were often involved in child labour.

Since the creation of the committee, Pratigya and other women have become agents of change. They go around visiting households, raising awareness about child labour and child marriage. Their message is simple yet clear: Children should be in school.

Led by the Village Head, these committees include several village elders and leaders, and two children.

Fifteen-year-old Anita is one of these children. “My parents used to say that we will get you married off soon. But, thanks to this protection committee, village elders have convinced my parents against it,” she says.

A Promise to Keep

Committee members have pledged their support against child marriage through a public declaration that they will not marry their own children before the legal age. This public vow has had a significant influence on the rest of the village.

“The public declaration by the Child Protection Committee of the village is very effective in the fight against child marriage,” says Chief of UNICEF Field Office in Uttar Pradesh Adele Khudr. “The action by the committee reaffirms that that people will not be socially stigmatized if they get their daughters married after 18.”

Changing Minds

Bhawrak is one of the many villages in this district where champions of change like Pratigya have been working spiritedly and tirelessly. Young girls in the village have a new-found confidence. Their parents have a promise to keep – a promise that they will not be married off as children.

As Pratigya and Chandra Devi continue the conversation, Chandra Devi breaks down in tears. She tells Pratigya that she married off her older daughters at an early age. One of them has been seriously ill since a complicated pregnancy. Doctors have told her that the girl’s uterus is damaged, and have attributed it to her pregnancy at age 16.

Chandra Devi decides against marrying off her youngest daughter at an early age. “I have learnt from my mistakes. I have promised my youngest daughter Basanti that I will send to school, and not marry her off, till she is 18 years of age.”

*Rajat Madhok’s report was published by UNICEF. Go to Original.

**Image: © UNICEF Varanasi/2012/Madhok. Since the creation of the committee, Pratigya and other women have become agents of change. They go around visiting households, raising awareness about child labour and child marriage. Their message is simple yet clear: Children should be in school.

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