Child marriage: How empowered children can strike at the root of the social evil

VIKAS DODRAJKAUpdated: Wednesday, July 20, 2022, 11:57 AM IST
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Social workers with School children take part in an awareness campaign to stop child marriage | ANI

Gudiya Kumari, 16, of Tetariyadih village in Domchanch block of Koderma district in Jharkhand is an inspiration for scores of girls in the state. Twice, she foiled the attempts of her parents for marrying her before the legal age of 18. A staunch believer in education as the medium of social transformation, she now spearheads the community movement against child marriage and other forms of child exploitation.

Last year, Gudiya’s family arranged her marriage. They then tried to reason with her under various pretexts, like financial security and societal pressure. But Gudiya was adamant about pursuing education and chasing her dreams. The family relented, albeit for a few months, and tried to persuade her again in 2022. This time, Gudiya responded by visiting the Block Development Officer’s (BDOs) office and sought the government officer’s help in stopping the marriage. Her marriage was stopped in the nick of time and at present, she is a Class 9 student at the local high school in Domchanch.

Like Gudiya, there are tens of thousands of girls in Jharkhand being pressured to marry at a young age. Few are successful in thwarting the attempts, while a majority succumb to the societal pressure and bear the yoke of multiple responsibilities from a tender age. Violence, exploitation and abuse are close concomitants of this deeply rooted social practice, which perpetuates gender discrimination.

Child marriage brings an abrupt end to a girl’s childhood on one hand and threatens her health on the other. Researches have underscored that girls married as a child remain susceptible to domestic violence. Besides, childbirth during adolescence poses grave concerns to the mother’s and infant’s health. Also, child marriages can trigger the vicious cycle of inter-generational poverty, thus affecting the economic development of the country.

Data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS 5) 2019-21 shows that of the married women aged 20-24 years in the state, 32.2% were married before 18 years of age. As compared to urban areas, where 19.4% of the girls were married before the legal age, child marriage was widespread in rural areas. 36.1% of rural girls were victims of child marriages, the NFHS data said.

Globally, child marriages are widespread, with one in five girls being married as a child. According to a UNICEF report, at least 10 million girls are at the risk of becoming child brides due to the pandemic. The United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) aims to end this human rights violation by 2030.

Because of the complex nature of the problem, there are no easy solutions. Complete reliance on state-sponsored interventions cannot yield lasting results. Collective efforts with civil society organisations, focusing on holistic solutions, such as community participation, mass awareness programmes and empowering children can be the first step in addressing the issue of child marriage.

Recently in Jharkhand, the unique model of Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, the Bal Mitra Gram (BMG) or Child Friendly Village (CFV), initiated an anti-child marriage campaign that not only created awareness about this societal evil but also stopped 66 child marriages since 2021.

A compelling example of democracy in action, the BMG model empowers children to have a voice in the village decision-making through the creation of a Bal Panchayat (Children’s Council) that works with the local village council. The strength of the BMG programme lies in its ability to continuously evolve, and so that it, can be adapted across different village panchayats. By addressing cross-cutting issues of education, child sexual abuse, Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Livelihood (WASH), it ensures that every child is safe and protected.

Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation (KSCF) started its anti-child marriage campaign across more than 500 BMGs in Jharkhand in 2021. It was based on a three-pronged strategy: to sensitise people, initiate immediate action to prevent child marriages and fostering leadership among children.

The campaign was initiated keeping in mind the increase in the incidents of child marriages in rural areas after the lockdown in 2020. During community interactions, various reasons for child marriages came to the fore. These included the existing labour and financial crisis along with the prolonged closure of schools.

Last month, in the closing ceremony of the campaign, the principal district and sessions judge, Koderma administered a mass pledge to adopt zero tolerance for child marriages in the district. The campaign–organised in two phases, from January to August 2021, and from February to May 2022–empowered children and created child leaders as the most potent weapon again the social evil of child marriage.

To train children as leaders various workshops were held. These children then participated in numerous jan choupals (community meetings), ratri chopuals (community meetings in the night) and performed street plays to sensitise people. The BMG team reached out to over 31,000 people during the campaign.

During the meetings, members of women groups– who were victims of child marriage– shared their experiences and pledged to refuse the marriage of their daughters before the legal age of 18 years. A key achievement of the campaign was collaborating with the government officials to intervene in cases of child marriages, besides sensitising them to prioritise issues pertaining to exploitation of children.

To curb the menace of child marriage, the ministry of women and child development has introduced the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021. The bill seeks to increase the minimum age of marriage for females to 21 years. Also, as per the bill, the new legal age will override any existing customs, laws and practices. The Bill adds that the provisions of the Act shall have an overriding effect over any other law, custom, usage or practice governing the parties to the marriage.

However, law can only be an effective deterrent when the prevalent norms and stereotypes about gender roles and marriage, especially in rural areas, are dismantled. Empowering children and making them the driving force for social transformation can break the deeply entrenched societal notions of oppression, injustice and discrimination.

(Author is former chairperson CWC & former member juvenile Justice Board Chaibasa)

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