Once topping the charts in child marriages in the country, Bihar has reduced the incidence of this social evil considerably, helped by innovative interventions such as starting girls clubs for solidarity, and encouraging them to play football.
In two unique initiatives, two separate groups of girls are fighting against rampant child marriage in rural Bihar by forming Sukanya Clubs at the panchayat level, and by encouraging girls to play football. They are using the clubs for meetings, interaction, and awareness, and playing football as a tool to create awareness and build up confidence among themselves to stand on their own against marriage before they are 18 years old.
Fourteen-year-old Nushrat Perween and 16-year-old Chandrarekha Kumari look relaxed under a mango tree after happily playing with other girls of their age. They have refused to marry during the ongoing lagan (traditional marriage season during the summer). Both are residents of a village bordering Nepal in Bihar’s West Champaran district, where Mahatma Gandhi started his first Satyagraha against British rule 100 years ago in 1917.
They are lucky, like nearly a dozen other minor girls who were saved from underage marriage in rural Champaran, thanks to a unique initiative started by a group of girls at the village level. These girls have been fighting against child marriage with the help of elected representatives of the panchayat and some local educated men and women.
No to child marriage
“I have refused to marry and managed to convince my parents not to marry me and allow me to study after I came into contact with a group of local girls, who informed me about child marriage, its bad impact on health, education, and our empowerment,” Nushrat, who lives in Mangalpur village, told VillageSquare.in. “They supported me when I shocked my parents by saying that I will not marry till I complete my education.”
A student of Class VII at a government school, Nushrat has now joined the core team of girls spreading awareness against child marriage. She is one of hundreds of girls on the forefront of a campaign in villages like Mangalpur, Bodsar, Karmaha, Naraingarh, and Sidhaon.
Chandrarekha, a school dropout, has also refused to marry, thanks to her association with the Sukanya Club. “We have been regularly meeting and interacting with local girls and organizing a formal meeting at the panchayat every two month to discuss issues of health, education, gender discrimination, and domestic violence,” she says. “We hold special orientation camps for girls, with focus on developing their ability to decide against early marriage. It has been proving fruitful.”
“Nearly 250 girls between 14-18 years old in 10 panchayats in Bagaha block in West Champaran have joined as leaders of Sukanya Club to fight against child marriage,” Akhtari Begum, who heads a voluntary organization called Izad, told VillageSquare.in. “Our small effort to create awareness and motivate local village girls to join this campaign against child marriage has proved successful. So far, five or six girls have come forward themselves and refused to marry, and some managed to convince their parents to delay their marriage for the next 2-3 years till they reach the age of 18.”
Lakhsmi Khatri, one of the leading faces of the campaign against child marriage in 10 panchayats, recalled that she started it with a small group of five girls, that has now increased to hundreds. “We have started work with a resolution – My Life My Right – that has slowly spread, and our numbers have increased,” she said.
Another group of girls have been promoting and encouraging girls in nearly a dozen panchayats in rural Patna and Samastipur districts to play football and exchange views on education, career, health, and empowerment to give them help and strength to say no to child marriage.
Pallaavi Kumari, 15 years old and a Class IX student, was under tremendous pressure to marry this year, but she refused after joining the football team. A Dalit resident of Gaunpura village, she said, “I got a chance to play football in a field that boosted my confidence to say no to what I don’t want.”
“We have begun a small initiative called ‘It’s My Body’ with two girls to promote football playing among village girls to create awareness against child marriage. It was not only difficult, but impossible, to get sufficient time and free space to talk to these girls and inform them about bad effects of child marriage on their health, education, and life at their respective houses, with their parents and elders around. So, we decided to bring them to the field to play football to give them confidence, increase their willpower, and fill them with awareness to take their own decision to refuse child marriage,” Pratima Kumari, 35, a victim of child marriage herself and the brain behind introducing football among village girls, told VillageSquare.in.
Spreading the game
Nearly 500 girls in 25 villages under five panchayats – Sakraicha, Dhibra, Gaunpura, Parsa, and Sorumpur in Phulwarisharief administrative block – have been successfully trained to play football. “Thanks to football, these girls have got unbelievable confidence to move ahead in life. It is something that gave them understanding and encouraged them to say no to child marriage,” says Pratima Kumari, who has been promoting football through her organization, Gauraav Gramin Mahila Vikas Manch.
Pratima Kumari, a Dalit, admitted that child marriage is a big social problem among Dalits, Other Backward Classes, and Muslims due to low literacy rate. “Keeping education as the main agenda in mind, when I started working among Dalits and other marginalised sections like OBCs and Muslims in 2013, I requested and convinced parents during meetings in village after village to let their daughters complete higher education. We have used football as a tool to reach out to the root of the problem.”
She says her work was recognized by CREA, a feminist human rights organization based in New Delhi, which also helped her organize regular training for the girls. Pratima said playing football has helped three Muslim girls in Murgiyachaak village and five Muslim girls in Adhapa village refuse underage marriage.
Vipin Kumar, communication coordinator of Save the Children in Bihar, said girls are still considered a burden in rural areas, and families are eager to get rid of them. In fact, lower dowry also plays an important role for promoting girl child marriage. Parents have to pay higher dowry if their daughters become adults. “There has been lack of awareness and mental setup for ages. Hence, many people see start of menstruation as indicating a girl’s readiness for marriage and child birth,” he pointed out.
Neelu is Chairperson of the Mahila Jagran Kendra in Patna. She said hundreds of underage marriages are currently taking place at dozens of well-known temples across the state. She named the famous Vishnupad temple in Gaya and several other temples in Patna, Aurangabaad, Madhubani, Saharsa, Muzaffarpur, and Bhagalpur. VillageSquare.in could not independently verify this.
Improvement in Bihar
Till a few years ago, Bihar accounted for 69 % of child marriages in India. But the latest National Family Health Survey-4 (NFHS-4) revealed lower figures in the last 10 years. This is mostly due to increase in education among girls. Bihar has recorded a decline of 30 percentage points in child marriage between 2005-6 and 2015-16, the survey shows. Still, 39.1 % of child marriages take place in the state. In fact, in 19 of 38 districts of Bihar, the percentage of child marriage is above 40 %.
Taking the NFHS-4 data seriously, Bihar CM Nitish Kumar will launch a massive campaign against child marriage. It will be on the lines of his successful campaign against alcohol.
The Chief Minister announced it last month at an official function of Champaran Satyagraha. Top officials are now preparing a detailed plan for a campaign, says N. Vijaya Lakshmi, Managing Director, Women Development Corporation.
Adapted from an article originally published on VillageSquare.in. Subscribe to VillageSquare’s weekly update on the website for more stories from rural India.