Rajasthan, India – “I want to study at least until the 12th standard (degree)” was Saira Bano’s heart cry when her parents started looking for a husband for her in October 2020.
It had been a hard year for his parents in his native Northwestern country. Since a national blockade to check for coronavirus was imposed in March 2020, Saira’s father has not been able to find much work.
He earns about 1,200 rupees ($ 17) a week as a worker in pre-COVID times, which keeps the family afloat. And when that even stopped, he thought it was better to marry Saira instead of spending the family’s limited resources on his education.
Saira is 17 years old.
“We are six brothers and sisters,” he said by telephone from his village of Kudgaon in the Karauli district of Rajasthan.
“We have always lived in poverty. After COVID, it became even more difficult to support the family. ”
Worldwide, about 12 million girls a year marry before they turn 18, according to the United Nations. Nearly 30 percent of South Asian women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before the age of 18.
The coronavirus pandemic only aggravated the crisis.
While the Indian government has not kept complete data, international organizations say child marriages could be a major repercussion of the pandemic.
As of June last year, just three months after the blockade, about 92,203 interventions had been made by ChildLine, an agency that protects children at risk and is part of the Ministry of Women and Child Development. Thirty-five percent of those interventions involved child marriages.
While Saira understood her father’s impotence, she did not give up.
“I was really shocked,” he said. “I want to be a teacher when I grow up.” I want to help young girls become independent women. But I didn’t know how to convince my father. “
He soon became aware of a group of girls from marginalized communities who had started a campaign to create awareness around child marriage in Karauli.
“That had my hopes,” Saira said. “I attended their meeting, and I learned that the state government has a scholarship scheme to ensure that girls like me do not drop out of school.”
He had the group and activists support him to talk to his father.
“They explained the inconveniences of child marriages,” Saira said. “It took me two months to convince him.” But he finally agreed. It’s been six months now, and he hasn’t talked about marriage with me. ”
If it weren’t for this intervention, Saira’s father wouldn’t have arrived. That group saved more than one girl from the marriage of children in Karauli.
A brave step into a known state
In October 2020, after convincing her parents to renounce their marriage, Priyanka Berwa, 18, a Scheduled Caste girl from Ramthara village in Karauli, decided to continue. Nine girls have joined her and have started a campaign against child marriage called Dalit Adivasi Pichhada Varg Kishori Shiksha Abhiyan (Movement for the Education of Girls of the Dalit Back Tribal Groups).
The Dalits, formerly called “the untouchables”, fell deep into the complete Indian caste hierarchy, while the tribes and other so-called “backward groups” were protected in particular by the constitution of India.
“We realized that almost all the girls our age were facing the same challenge as us,” Priyanka said.
“In any case, we don’t want to educate girls after the 10th grade (high school).” The pandemic hit me. Schools are closed, not many here have smartphones for online education, and people are out of work. I was lucky enough to have convinced my parents. ”
It has been a courageous step because the state of Rajasthan is particularly notorious when it comes to the illegal practice of child marriage.
According to the 2015-2016 National Family Health Survey, 35.4 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 24 in the state were married before they were 18 years old. The national average was 27 percent at the time.
Rajasthan’s initiative to provide free university education to girls aims to curb the practice.
Priyanka visited her mother, Urmila, 34, where she worked, cleaning the premises of a local NGO called Alwar Mewat Institute of Education and Development (AMIED).
“They always treated me with love and care,” Priyanka said. “There was no discrimination between men and women. I think I can ask for his help. ”
AMIED activists intervened and explained to Urmila that early marriage and early pregnancy are linked to malnutrition among young mothers, and contribute to premature births and maternal death.
Urmila therefore convinced her husband, who is often ill, meaning that Urmila supports the family.
“This has probably eased the conviction,” he said. “My parents married me at the age of 14. I remember how scared and helpless I felt. I spent more than half of my life caring for my daughter. I don’t want her to live the kind of life I do. I want her to live for herself. I want her to follow her dreams. “
Priyanka also wants to be a teacher and ensure that the girls in her area are able to study.
“I was lucky to have access to activists in AMIED. And those who don’t?” He said.
“So, little by little, 10 of us took two or three girls from each village, and they, in turn, convinced more girls from their villages to join us.” When we had enough people, we started going from country to country, chanting slogans against child marriage and creating awareness with street games. ”
Priyanka is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in art. Like her mother, she cleans houses to earn extra money. “I managed my education while working,” he said. “But I want every girl in the state to study at least up to the 12th standard.”
The movement that started with 10 girls has now become a force of 1,250 in Karauli – all aged between 13 and 18 years old and belonging to the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Class communities, which are among the most disadvantaged in India.
They were able to convince their parents and are now going door to door to convince older people and community leaders in the villages.
“There are challenges,” said Noor Mohammad, founder of AMIED. “But the girls have started a conversation around the boys’ marriage, and we see a serious return.”
Mohammad said the girls had also created accounts by e-mail and had written personal stories to the prime minister of the state.
“It simply came to our notice then. They approached people outside their district and decided to make it a pan-Rajasthan movement. They’re the leaders, we just help them, ”he said.
The growth of the movement has made the girls more confident, said Neelam Mahavar, 17, a girl of Casta Schedulata who lives in the village of Naroldam in Karauli.
When her potential spouse’s parents came to see her, she told him she was not interested in getting married.
“I told them I wanted to study. The boy’s parents say, “She’s an arrogant girl,” and they leave, “Neelam laughs.
“My parents thought that something would happen to them, that they would take care of me and my sister. My father lost his tailoring job after the lockdown. “
However, Neelam and her 13-year-old sister Khushi have told their parents that marriage is the last thing on their minds and that they are more than capable of caring for each other.
“My sister wants to become a collector (the most bureaucratic in a district). She is hardworking and has faith in herself, ”she says.
“And I want to be a teacher.” No one thinks of males as a burden. Even today, community elders believe that girls become capricious if they study more. I want to change this mindset. I want to tell the girls in Rajasthan that they are in no way inferior to the boys ”.