UNICEF - Forty per cent of the worlds child marriages takes place in India
Jyotsana was married at the age of 11. She had four children, but they all died before they turned one. Now she lives with her second husband after her first husband deserted her," reveals Rekha Kalindi, 11, from Purulia district, West Bengal. Fear and horror are apparent in the young girl's voice, as she narrates the ordeals of her elder sister, Jyotsana. Little wonder then that when her parents tried to get her married, young Rekha's protests managed to catch the attention of even the President of India.
Rekha's father Karan Kalindi, 49, had fixed her marriage last September. Karan rolls beedis for a living and wanted Rekha off his hands as soon as possible. He figured it would be one less mouth to feed. This father of six, whose monthly income is just Rs 600, also knew he would have to give considerably less dowry for a minor daughter.
However, what he hadn't anticipated was Rekha's determination to avoid her sister's fate. A student of the special school run in her village under the National Child Labour Project (NCLP), she garnered support from her classmates and teachers and even asked the Assistant Child Labour Commissioner, Prasenjit Kundu, to intervene. Her outraged father denied Rekha food and water for a couple of days but she would not budge. After repeated interventions from an NCLP team and her teachers, Rekha's parents finally called off the marriage.
Rekha Kalindi, Sunita Mahato
"Under the NCLP, all students get a monthly stipend of Rs 100 and, in partnership with UNICEF's Child Activist Project, share information on issues like child rights, early marriage, education, gender equality, and so on. Young girls attending school are now voicing their protest against early marriage," says Kundu.
Power of education
"I want to study. I want to become a teacher. I will consider marriage only after I turn 18," says Rekha, whose fight for her rights caught the attention of President Pratibha Patil, who invited her to Delhi for a meeting. As a child activist, Rekha also recently addressed 6,000 beedi workers, asking them to educate their daughters and not consider marriage before they turn 18.
Rekha's story vindicates the merits of education. She lives in Bararola village in Jhalda II Block, which has one of the lowest female literacy rates in the country at 18.4 per cent. While the average literacy rate in Bengal is 74 per cent, in Purulia it is 56.14 per cent, with women here notching only 37.15 per cent literacy. According to a UNICEF report, teenage pregnancy and motherhood is nine times higher among women with no schooling, than among those with 12 or more years of education. Forty per cent of the world's child marriages takes place in India, leading to over 78,000 women dying in childbirth each year.
Rekha, who rolled beedis along with her parents, got the benefit of education when the NCLP initiated schools for child labourers. The project, which began in 2006, today has 90 remedial schools in Purulia catering to 4,500 children.
"Rekha has done what laws could not do. Her stand has forced every family in the Kalindi community, where girls are married at 11-12 years, to rethink," says Budhamani Kalindi, Rekha's friend. She adds, "Earlier my parents were also thinking of finding a groom for me. Now there is no pressure. I can go to school with an easy mind."
Pushed by poverty
According to a survey by the West Bengal Department of Women and Child Development, 48 per cent girls in the State were married when they were minors. In fact, in Purulia an alarming 51.2 per cent of girls marry before they are 18. Child marriage is also endemic in the adjoining districts of Murshidabad, Malda, Birbhum, South Dinajpur, South 24 Parganas, Nadia and Cooch Behar.
In rural Purulia 43.65 per cent of families are below the poverty line (BPL) and the children are pushed into menial jobs, early marriage and prostitution networks.
Afsana Khatun, 13, another child labourer who attends the Dhobadi NCLP special school, lives in a slum in Katinpara, Purulia town. Her sister, Shabana, was married at 11. But when their father, Samsuddin Ansari, a hawker with a monthly income of Rs 1,200, tried to do the same with Afsana, the child rebelled. With the help of her classmates, Ruksana Khatun and Sakina Khatun, Afsana requested her teachers and NCLP officers to intervene. Afsana's parents were counselled and they finally abandoned the marriage plans.
"I want to study and get a job, only then will I consider marriage," says Afsana.
Taking on the community
In the Kurmi community, which comes under the OBC category in Purulia, child marriage is commonplace. "Both my sisters, Judani and Subhadra, were married when they were 13. They have remained illiterate. But I go to school. I know it's illegal to marry before 18. Therefore, when my father arranged my marriage with a dowry of Rs 30,000, I refused to comply with his wishes," says Sunita Mahoto, 13, who also lives in a slum in Chitaahi, Purulia.
Teachers and NCLP officers had intervened here too. But the Kurmi community was incensed over this and its leaders pressurised Sunita's parents, Mahakam and Sorubali Mahato, not to give in to her revolt. Mahakam, a beedi roller with a monthly income of just Rs 400 and a one-acre plot on which paddy is cultivated once every year, feared going against his community. But Sunita stuck to her guns and prevailed.
Prolonged discussions and reasoning have given rise to positive voices within the community. As Sunita herself points out, "Elders like Durgacharan Mahato, 53, and Arun Mahato, 44, are now actively advocating the education, rather than marriage, of minor girls."
One major reason why it is easy to fudge the ages of these girls and get them married early is the low level of birth registrations — only about 40 per cent of births are registered in India. But the compulsory registration of births and marriages would need sustained awareness generation at the ground level.
"Intervention programmes run by the district labour department in collaboration with organisations working in the field will go a long way in eradicating social evils like child marriage," says Shantanu Bose, District Magistrate, Purulia.
Recently, when Rekha was invited by the President to Delhi, the NCLP team requested that Afsana and Sunita too be allowed to accompany her. The girls met the President, who congratulated them on their courage and gave them Rs 10,000 each as a token of appreciation. The girls have resolved to spend this money on their education. All three enjoy working on computers. They excel in their studies and love to paint.
Now they want to work, become financially independent and chart a more hopeful future for themselves.