From the remote village of Subarnapur, child marriage victim Sanatan Murmu is fighting to educate the girls and women of her block about the obstacles of child marriage.
“I am 20-year-old and I can’t cook on my own because of constant sickness. If one week I keep well, the other two weeks, I am mostly in the bed. I am 20 and I already have two kids. Had I conceived my first child now, I would have been healthy. There are 8.5 lakh women like me who are victims of early maternity problems,” said Santana Murmu in a conference recently, conducted in Kolkata at the Swastha Bhavan.
I sit at the extreme corner of the cuboid conference room, reading and noting the numbers crunched from the projectors into the white translucent sheet. I notice a few heads nodding to the numbers and a tribal woman adorned in a fearless crimson saree with magenta nail polish. Her head is bowed as she recapitulates all the words in her mind and tries to make some sense of it. That woman is none other than Santana Murmu.
Last year, Santana made the headlines in all the vernacular press. Why? For one, she became the youngest activist in India to receive an invite to speak at the United Nations from none other than Ban-ki-Moon himself. But after all that fanfare, her news died down.
She is still a celebrity but just in her village, where she has impacted the lives of more than 150 teenage girls, by educating them on family planning and saving them from the evils of child marriage.
Due to my constant glare, Santana looks up and our eyes meet for the first time in the last 2 hours. Out of due respect, I give a vivacious smile but it was never returned. She again bows her head and goes back to her reverie.
To cut Santana’s long story short, she has been an activist since the tender age of 15. Again, the question ‘why’ arises. Because she couldn’t tolerate seeing how, day-in and day-out, the girl child continued to be suppressed and forced to become a mother in her adolescence.
Her primary concern was, “While I was lucky to survive a child birth in my teenage years, all girls are not as lucky. Every day, girls die from complication arising from child birth. What is in store for them?”
At lunch time, I corner Santana, and this time she smiles, a terse but sensitive smile. I make her sit in one of those broken plastic chairs, and she takes her seat happily. She says, “I speak very poor Bengali, I hope you understand.” And then for the next 45 minutes, she talks to me, mostly gesticulating, nodding her head a lot, tapping her feet out of excitement while undauntingly speaking about the healthcare system in India.
Santana was a victim of child marriage, a criminal offence under the Indian Penal Code, but practiced widely amongst the tribal classes in the country. Santana belongs to an Adivasi tribe where puberty is a cue to get daughters married. Santana wanted to study and while her parents invested in getting her brother an MA degree, Santana was not even allowed to finish her boards.
“I used to play about with the other kids of the house after marriage, did not quite understand the meaning of the nuptials,” Santana joyfully remembers.
Little did she know what she was getting into. The year after her marriage she got involved with CINI (Child In Need Institute), an NGO, and started advocating the use of contraception, the need to stop child marriage, and the hazards of early maternity to her small block called Subarnapur in South Dinajpur district of West Bengal. However, it was not an easy task both for CINI and Santana.
Due to the remote location of her house and her block, CINI was not always part of her campaigns, says Suman, a member of CINI and Santana’s guide. But, says Suman, Sanatana raised her voice on her own, even without the support of CINI.
It was by no means a cake-walk for Santana. Her family was cross with her, and so were her neighbours; after all, she was a mother who was advocating others not to become one until they were mature enough to handle motherhood. Needless to say, she had only a few supporters and among them, one was her husband Govinda Hemram.
“I would go alone and sit with the Panchayat or other senior members of the village, talk to school going kids and enlighten them. Sometimes, I tried to bring awareness among the men as well. While some of them understood, others took offense and would not listen to me. But now everyone listens to me,” says Santana.
That’s when she stirred the United Nations with her strong voice asking the question:
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“If everything is for the women, then where are we? If the maternity care, the roads, the schemes are all for us, then how come we are not its recipients?”
Her anguish travelled to the UN and she was invited to speak at a conference in New York. Although, for the residents of Subarnapur, Santana’s story has become folklore, for Santana herself, it was something she never even dreamt of.
Leaving her husband and kids behind, taking a flight, without proper sweaters she made it to the United States of America. And it is here,when she was asked about her education in New York, that she rediscovered her passion for studying, .
Determined to fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher, she started schooling despite the initial hurdles put forward by the school authorities.
Now she reads and writes, and her favorite subject is Bengali.
She is an autodidact, says Sujoy Roy, a CINI member and Santana’s guide. He has known Santana ever since she joined CINI and has supported her in all her ventures.
He says, “We did not train Santana to do or speak anything, but she learned it herself, because of what she suffered.”
Santana not only single-handedly trains and raises awareness on child marriage in her block, but right now, she is piloting her own campaign to save the girl child. In many cases, these children have become subservient and themselves run away to get married.
“This is an alarming situation at hand, these kids do not understand the implications of an early marriage. They fall in love and are ready to give up studies and their homes, and no one cares about them since it is not done forcibly,” Santana says.
To fight this, Santana is working with CINI and has opened a toll-free crisis number to counsel such girls before they take drastic steps.
“This number is mostly for the friends of the expected bride, who get the cue and call us to inform us of the ‘running away’ plans of their friends,” says Suman.
It’s about to be 4pm, sunlight has slanted westwards and filters through the window shades onto Santana’s bangles. She looks tired and her palpitations have increased a little due to the interactions, but she sits steady, with her tired body.
I ask one last question: You have got many awards and recognition; can you tell me what are they?
She breaks into a giggle, and says, “There are many silver plates that I have received and other certificates, but I don’t know what they are for, and what is the use of such recognition if I do not have money to execute anything. They are just bright pieces of metal decorating my cupboard.”
Santana, despite her relentless effort to bring change into the lives of girl children in her block and other neighboring blocks, has almost little or no financial help from the government, and she has never asked for it.
But she expects help, something to cover her campaigns, which she runs on her own.
Suman informs me that it is due to Santana that CINI has diverted their focus from her block because, as per numbers, her block Subarnapur has developed in terms of awareness and cases of child marriage. They are now focusing on other blocks which are more backward.
The credit for Subarnapur becoming a ‘developed block’ goes solely to Santana and her untiring efforts.
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