Set in the lap of nature, Thianal village in Odisha’s Deogarh district offers a picturesque view with hills and a perennial river ‘Hinjuli’ flowing on one side. Located approximately 60 km from the district headquarters, the village is home to 70-odd families, whose main occupation includes farming and livestock rearing. Besides the scenic beauty, Thianal seems like any other regular village, until the eyes settle on a poster hanging on the wall of the primary school situated at the entrance of the village. Written in bold font, as if exuding pride, the poster declares the village as the ‘First Child Marriage Free Village’ of the district.
It is Odisha’s second child marriage free village after Rugudipalli in the Subarnapur district.
Almost half a decade ago, child marriages were common in the district. According to National Family Health Survey (NFHS) — 4 released in 2015-16, Deogarh district had reported a child marriage rate of 23.4 per cent, higher than the state average of 21.3 per cent. However, in five years, 370 villages (almost half in the district), have gained the ‘Child Marriage Free’ tag.
Proper documentation has played a prominent role in the villages’ quest to become ‘Child Marriage Free’. In most villages including Thianal, marriage is not fixed, let alone solemnised without proper verification.
“Most people in our villages didn’t know that there was a legal age in marriage. Almost all marriages in our parent’s generation happened when both the bride and groom were minors. Though the cases dropped after some years, early marriage was still common as there was no means of verification. So, now we have made Aadhar card verification mandatory before finalising any marriage. We figured this would be the best way to ascertain the age of the bride and the groom,” says Ajit Pradhan (32), a resident of the village, who was among the first ones to take this initiative.
In case, a family is not able to furnish Aadhar cards, the village accepts other documents for age proof. But none of the marriages can take place without document verification.
Push Towards Institutional Set-Up
In Thianal, after two youths from the village attended a District Level Sensitisation programme on the subject, they returned and organised a focussed discussion to lay the blueprint to track child marriages in the village. In February 2020, a Village Level Task Force was formed comprising mostly senior members of the village, which prepared a database of all adolescents.
The Committee then approached the district administration demanding a ‘Child Marriage Free’ tag. After physical verification by the District Child Protection Officer, the village was declared ‘Child Marriage Free’ in October 2020.
Interestingly, the stakeholders involved in the initiative have pushed the community itself to take the lead. UNICEF provided the technical support, while other stakeholders like the district administration, NGOs and civil societies did the strategic planning. The interventions at the district level included advocacy and awareness campaigns, IEC materials and declaration of all religious institutions as ‘child marriage prohibited zone’.
“This model has worked for us. When people take onus, the accountability is much higher. So, the administration remains in the background. Of course, we keep track and interfere whenever necessary,” says Romeo Mohapatra, District Child Protection Officer, Deogarh.
Any marriage which is fixed first goes through a comprehensive age verification by the committee. Initially, the families were asked to share the Aadhar card of both the groom and the bride for age verification. But now, the villages in the district have a readymade directory prepared by the Odisha Government that has contact numbers of local leaders/village committee members of all villages.
“For example, if a boy of our village is getting married to a girl in Kantapalli panchayat in our district, we directly dial the Sarpanch or Anganwadi or Asha worker and ask them to ascertain the girl’s age through document verification,” says Ajit.
The age verification has helped stop at least two instances of child marriage in the last year in Thianal. In one such instance, Naresh Bhoi (21) was about to get married to a minor, who had a few months left to turn 18 years. When the villagers came to know about it, they convinced the family to postpone the wedding till the girl attained legal age.
“I had no idea about the legal age of marriage. I liked a girl and had decided to marry with the consent of my mother. But then the villagers came to my house and informed me about the disadvantages of early marriage. So, we respected the view and decided to postpone the wedding,” says Naresh, who is now married to the same girl.
The village also has a ‘Counselling room,’ where the ASHA and Anganwadi workers hold regular meetings on issues related to adolescents.
To press seriousness on the issue, the members of the Village Task Force have also pasted a nameplate outside the house with their name and designation and an oath to discourage child marriage.
Parameters to Declare Child Marriage Free
There are no robust parameters as such to declare any village as child marriage free. However, the officials are taking into account a few basic pointers before certifying the villages.
For any village to be declared as Child Marriage Free, it should have a functioning task force within the community, a database with information of all adolescents updated regularly, at least no instance of child marriages for the last one year, a duly maintained register of the task force, submission of the villagers to declare the village ‘child marriage free’ and a declaration by the village temple as Child Marriage Free Zone.
Although the awareness and sensitisation of the legal age of marriage in remote areas of the state is a welcoming sign, development workers related to this field say the battle is far from over.
Most villages have started adhering to the legal marriage age, but dropout from education is a big worry. A few cases of elopement among adolescents have also emerged, officials say.
“Even if the marriage is delayed, there is a high chance that most girls might have to quit studies once they turn 18 and are married. So, our next responsibility is to ensure that they continue their education, skilled training or some income generation activities. Once an example of an empowered girl is set, she will become an inspiration for others. Child marriage free villages are the first step, but there is still a lot to achieve,” says Ghasiram Panda, a development worker based in Odisha, who has worked intensively in preventing child marriages.
(Written by Tazeen Qureshy; Edited by Yoshita Rao)