A decade into the new millennium, somewhere in the remote corners of Satgawan Block in Koderma, Jharkhand, a group of five friends were getting ready to go for a wedding one summer morning. The mood was buoyant and the fun was yet to begin. They arranged for presents for the bride and reached the venue at the village of Puthodih. But the bride was nowhere to be seen! When it was time for them to leave, upon their insisting, the mother of the groom arrived carrying the bride in her arms. She had fallen asleep from the sheer exhaustion of the day's proceedings. The bride was three years old.
After this group of people spoke to me explaining that what I was doing was ruining childhoods and is illegal, I have completely stopped supporting any such activity.—Village priest
The sight of the sleeping child jolted the five friends badly. They had previously attended many weddings where the bride and groom were underage, but never before had they seen a toddler in such a situation. For Narendra Prasad Yadav and his friends, it was an eye opener. That day, on their way back, they decided to start fighting against child marriage.
Their resolve took some time to translate into action. It was two years later, in 2012, that they participated in a Rapid Assessment Survey on child health and malnutrition conducted by CRY – Child Rights and You and its alliance partner in Jharkhand. While conducting the survey, they found out that most of the children identified as malnourished belonged to the families where the mothers had been victims of child marriage and had given birth before reaching adulthood.
As Manoj Dangi, one of the five friends, recollects, "The realisation that child marriage is one of the root causes of malnutrition was the final push we needed. It was more than enough motivation for us to take action."
It took a while for the process to begin, but by 2014, this group was ready with their innovative plan of action. While they were doing their door-to-door research, they had figured out that one a major factor preventing parents from waiting to get their children married was the fear of relinquishing traditions. The attack had to be directed towards age-old norms of society. This wasn't easy, but the approach was fool-proof.
Four out of the five friends were by now part of the CRY-supported project Rashtriya Jharkhand Seva Sansthan (RJSS), and Narendra had gone on to become the mukhiya of Terhro Gram Panchayat. RJSS started with sensitising the panchayats, the priests, the maulvis and the local government officials about the ill-effects of child marriage and the fact that it is a crime. After several rounds of discussion, at an official meeting held at the RJSS office, the entire group took an oath—not only to do their best to stop child marriages, but also to not attend any marriage where the bride and groom (or any one of them) were minors.
Work started immediately in the five neighbouring panchayats of Tehro, Kataiya, Mirganj, Basodih and Samaldih. Every panchayat pradhan gave it their best shot. "The discussion at the RJSS office opened my eyes. Being a woman myself, it wasn't difficult for me to understand how important this cause is. It is a very difficult task to fight against tradition and I face even now. But I am not going to give up," says Sharmila Devi, the current pradhan of the Tehro Panchayat.
"One of our best weapons in this fight has been the idea to felicitate the parents with a Shubhkamnapatra (a Certificate of Appreciation) from the local administration, if they refrain from subjecting their children to underage marriage. The panchayat pradhan hands over the certificate at a special ceremony thus establishing that the political head of the village stands by the family that is refuting the norms. This has helped us immensely. Not only to give the family due support against being ostracised by the village, but also by later providing them with a document that can act as a legal marriage certificate if required," says Manoj Dangi of RJSS.
Sarayu Yadav, who waited till his son turned 22 and the bride turned 18 to get them married was recently felicitated at such a function. "I cannot express how happy I am. The way the authorities stood by me and applauded me for this helped me face the villagers with my head held high. They will now never curse me for not following the customs. I am glad I did the right thing," he says.
The journey has not been easy. But it has definitely been worth it. "Till date we've successfully prevented as many as 68 child marriages," recollects Nirbhay, one of the four friends who are now working with RJSS. "We've got best response from the panchayats of Kataiya and Mirganj where the instances of child marriage have reduced from 65-70% to 25% in just three years. We have to remember that we are fighting against age-old traditional practices that are a way of life for the villagers here."
This is no small success, especially in a state where the son of a state-level political leader made headlines by allegedly marrying a minor, just a few months back. And it's more heartening to hear a septuagenarian priest say, "From the very beginning of my career I have been marrying children off because that was what I was taught. After this group of people spoke to me explaining that what I was doing was ruining childhoods and is illegal, I have completely stopped supporting any such activity. I am scared—not only of the legal authorities but also about the burden of the wrongs I have done in the past. I cannot undo the past, but I can definitely create a better future for the children."