This small town in Kerala is the first dowry free and 100% matriculate zone of India. But, the journey to this achievement has not been a smooth ride. Read more to know how the municipality of Nilambur has worked hard to set Nilambur as an example before the country.
65-year-old Muhammed, a daily wage labourer, and his 60-year-old wife, Fathima, are parents of five girls and two boys in Cheruvathukunnu, a Muslim-majority village near Nilambur in Kerala. By 2012, they managed to marry off two of their daughters by paying a few sovereigns of gold in both the weddings. The other three daughters are educated; Sajna (35) is a post-graduate, Jaseela (29) is a graduate and Shameela (26) has done a teachers’ training course.
Inspite of this, Mohammed was not a satisfied father. He was worried about managing the amount of dowry to marry off his three spinster daughters. This was not the only family which was living in a hand-to-mouth condition because of the pressure of dowry from prospective grooms. There were many households sailing in the same boat.
Even though we talk of counting India in the group of developed countries soon, practices like dowry demands and child marriage have continued to cripple the lives of its citizens. But now, there has been a sea-change. Nilambur residents proudly call themselves as people belonging to a dowry free zone!
The journey towards an improvement in the scenario was kicked off during a survey conducted in Nilambur in 2007 to collect the statistics of the homeless in the area. It brought to light that at least one-third of the people had been rendered homeless because they had mortgaged their lands to meet the expenses of their daughters’ weddings.
They sought financial help from the Panchayat to repay the loans. This prompted the Panchayat to conduct a survey with the help of Kerala Mahila Samakhya Samiti (KMSS), under the HRD ministry, which brought to light the terrible situation. As per Panchayat president Aryadan Shoukath, about 60 weddings were held in the area in a month and the amount of dowry in each wedding approximated to 3-4 lakhs. In a population of 45,000, nearly 1,000 girls of marriageable age remained unmarried as they could not afford the dowry demands.
The survey also revealed that 40 per cent of the families had gone bankrupt after they were forced to pay dowry while 52 per cent of the divorced women attributed their fate to non-fulfillment of dowry commitment. “These boys accept dowry in order to bail out their beleaguered parents. So, in effect, it’s become a vicious circle,” Mr. Shoukath says.
KMSS spokesperson Selina T. further adds that “Mysore Marriage” was popular in some villages of Malabar. In this system, rich men marry girls from poverty stricken families and desert them after sometime.
“In 2009, we took a pledge to make Nilambur a dowry-free village in a year,” said municipality chairman Aryadan Shoukath, the brain behind the movement. They started several projects, mainly sensitization programmes, to wean the people away from the practice of dowry.
Workshops were held to enlighten the parents and youths about the findings of the survey. Delhi-based firm O D Alternative conducted the workshops free of charge. “For many Muslim men, sitting beside women for a public function was a first experience,” says Shoukath.
Young men and women too joined in with great zeal. Public meetings in all villages, door-to-door campaigns, street plays and motivation classes were organized on a mass scale.
‘Dump dowry’ associations were set up and informers were deployed to give a tip-off about such cases. Mass community marriages were conducted. “We fashioned it in a way that dowry is the biggest crime in one’s life and it did wonders,” says K Shabeer Ali, a volunteer.
An online dimension was also given to the campaign by a launching a website called www.dowryfreemarriage.com wherein anybody from any part of the world can register and upload his/her profile free of cost.
This website is a collaborative venture of the panchayat and women’s rights NGO Mahila Samakhya Society to promote dowry-free marriages. Apart from helping find partners, the site also provides a platform to hold discussions on issues like dowry, marriage customs, gender justice and matrimonial property rights.
“It is our attempt to enlist more people to our campaign. As websites are global media capable of spreading socially relevant messages worldwide, we have opted for that,” adds Shoukath. But registering on the website is not too easy. The panchayat wants to ensure the credibility of the profile owner. Those who wish to register are given a code, based on which a password is sent to their mobile number. They can then register using this password. Civic authorities verify if the application is genuine. If it is, links are established.
With the efforts of the panchayat, the movement has been very successful and has created a profound impact on the lives of the people. Sajidha and her mother Afsat, both natives of Nilambur, had been victims of child marriage and dowry. Both these ladies have taken it upon themselves not to let anyone suffer in silence.
When Sajidha came to know that a 16-year old girl was being married off in the locality, she rushed to the ‘pandal’ with fellow volunteers, blocked the marriage and made the girl’s parents give an undertaking that the marriage would be solemnized at least after two years, only after the girl was 18 years of age. “Atleast our next generation should be free from such crippling social evils,” Sajidha says. Watch this video (in Malayalam) to see how Nilambur was transformed:
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‘Say No to Dowry’ has become the catchword of the area. The entrance to the village has a board put up with a message declaring the area as a ‘DOWRY FREE ZONE.’ Free coaching classes are organized by the municipality for those who wish to prepare for competitive exams. Women self-help groups have become powerful and they tap entrepreneurial qualities of poor women effectively.
“After achieving our target in our fight against dowry, we have started dealing with other social issues like domestic violence and marital desertions,” says Selina T.
Since the announcement of the website, nearly 1,635 people have registered on it. Another scheme has been launched called ‘Surakshita’. This scheme works as a rehabilitation programme for women affected by dowry. This scheme not only helps them to fight their cases, but also serves as a financial aid for their wards’ education and healthcare.
‘Sameeksha’ is another such initiative bringing a better life to the inhabitants. After another survey, the municipality found that there were 2,519 non-matriculates in the area. Soon, they were trained to appear for the 10th-equivalent examination and most of them made it.
This small town of Nilambur has shown the world how to contain social evils effectively. Even though dowry is a punishable crime, it still exists in several parts of our country. Nilambur can work as an effective example in curbing this practice everywhere.