By Mohammad Imran Khan*, West Champaran, Bihar
In two unique initiatives, two separate groups of girls are fighting against rampant child marriage in rural Bihar by forming Sukanya Clubs at the panchayat level, and by encouraging girls to play football. They are using the clubs for meetings, interaction and raising awareness, and playing football to generate awareness and build confidence among themselves so that they can take a stand against being married off before they turn 18 years old.
Fourteen-year-old Nushrat Perween and 16-year-old Chandrarekha Kumari look relaxed under a mango tree after happily playing with other girls of their age. They have refused to marry during the ongoing lagan (traditional marriage season during the summer). Both are residents of a village bordering Nepal in Bihar's West Champaran district, where Mahatma Gandhi started his first Satyagraha against British rule 100 years ago in 1917.
They are among the lucky dozen or so minor girls who were saved from underage marriage in rural Champaran, thanks to a unique initiative started by a group of girls at the village level. These girls have been fighting against child marriage with the help of elected representatives of the panchayat and some local educated men and women.
"Nearly 250 girls of ages between 14 to 18 years in 10 panchayats in Bagaha block in West Champaran have joined as leaders of Sukanya Club to fight against child marriage."
No to child marriage
"I have refused to marry and managed to convince my parents not to marry me and allow me to study after I came into contact with a group of local girls, who informed me about child marriage, its bad impact on health, education and our empowerment," Nushrat, who lives in Mangalpur village, told VillageSquare.in. "They supported me when I shocked my parents by saying that I will not marry until I complete my education."
A student of Class 7 in a government school, Nushrat has now joined the core team of girls spreading awareness against child marriage. She is one of the hundreds of girls in the forefront of a campaign in villages such as Mangalpur, Bodsar, Karmaha, Naraingarh and Sidhaon.
Chandrarekha, a school dropout, has also refused to marry, thanks to her association with the Sukanya Club. "We have been regularly meeting and interacting with local girls and organising a formal meeting at the panchayat every two month to discuss issues of health, education, gender discrimination and domestic violence," she says. "We hold special orientation camps for girls with a focus on developing their ability to decide against early marriage. It has been fruitful."
"Nearly 250 girls of ages between 14 to 18 years in 10 panchayats in Bagaha block in West Champaran have joined as leaders of Sukanya Club to fight against child marriage," Akhtari Begum, who heads a voluntary organization called Izad, told VillageSquare.in. "Our small effort to create awareness and motivate local village girls to join this campaign against child marriage has proved successful. So far, five or six girls have come forward and refused to marry, and some managed to convince their parents to delay their marriage by two to three years until they reached 18 years of age."
Lakhsmi Khatri, a leading face in the campaign against child marriage in 10 panchayats, recalled that she began with a small group of five girls that has now ballooned to hundreds. "We started work with a resolution, 'My Life My Right,' that has slowly spread and our numbers have increased," she said.
Pallavi Kumari, 15 years old and a student of Class 9, was under tremendous pressure to get married this year, but she refused after joining the football team.
Another group of girls has been promoting and encouraging girls in nearly a dozen panchayats in rural Patna and Samastipur districts in Bihar to play football and exchange views on education, career, health and empowerment, to ensure that they have the strength and support to say no to child marriage.
Pallavi Kumari, 15 years old and a student of Class 9, was under tremendous pressure to get married this year, but she refused after joining the football team. A Dalit resident of Gaunpura village, she said, "I got a chance to play football in a field and that boosted my confidence to say no to what I don't want."
"We began a small initiative called 'Its My Body' with just two girls to promote football playing among village girls to create awareness against the child marriage," Pratima Kumari, 35, who was married off as a child herself and is the brain behind introducing football among village girls, told VillageSquare.in. "It was not only difficult but impossible to get sufficient time and free space to talk to these girls and inform them about the bad effect of child marriage on their health, education and life at their respective houses with their parents and elders around. So, we decided to bring them to the field to play football to give them confidence, increase their willpower, and raise their awareness to take their own decisions and refuse child marriage."
Spreading the game
Nearly 500 girls in 25 villages under five panchayats — Sakraicha, Dhibra, Gaunpura, Parsa and Sorumpur in the Phulwarisharief administrative block — have been successfully trained to play football. "Thanks to football, these girls now have unbelievable levels of confidence. It has given them the understanding and encouraged them to say no to child marriage," Kumari said. She has been promoting football through her organisation, the Gauraav Gramin Mahila Vikas Manch.
A member of the Dalit community herself, Kumari admitted that child marriage is a big social problem among Dalits, Other Backward Classes and Muslims because of low literacy rates. "Keeping education as main agenda in mind, when I started working among Dalits and other marginalised sections such as OBCs and Muslims since 2013, I requested and convinced parents during meetings in village after village to let their daughters complete higher education. We have used football as a tool to reach to the root of the problem."
She says her work was recognized by CREA, a feminist human rights organization based in New Delhi, which also helped her to organise regular training among girls. Kumari said that playing football encouraged three Muslim girls in Murgiyachaak village and five Muslim girls in Adhapa village to refuse underage marriage.
Pallavi Kumari admitted that child marriage is a big social problem among Dalits, Other Backward Classes and Muslims because of low literacy rates.
Vipin Kumar, communication coordinator of Save the Children in Bihar, said girls are still considered a burden in rural areas and families are eager to get rid of them. Having to pay a lower dowry also plays an important role in the girl-child's marriage. Parents have to pay a higher dowry when their daughters become adults. "Due to lack of awareness and age old mindsets, a large number of people believe that start of menstruation is a clear indication that a girl is fit and ready for marriage and child birth," he pointed out.
Neelu, Chairperson of Mahila Jagran Kendra in Patna, said that during ongoing marriage season, hundreds of underage marriages have been taking place at dozens of well-known temples across the state. She cited the example of the famous Vishnupad temple in Gaya and several other temples in Patna, Aurangabaad, Madhubani, Saharsa, Muzaffarpur and Bhagalpur. VillageSquare.in could not independently verify this.
Improvement in Bihar
Until a few years ago, Bihar accounted for 69 percent of all child marriages in India. But the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) revealed that the figure has dipped in the past 10 years due to an increase in education among girls. Bihar has recorded a decline of 30 percentage points in child marriage between 2005-6 and 2015-16, the survey shows. Still, 39.1 percent of all child marriages in India are taking place in the state. In fact, in 19 of 38 districts of Bihar, the rate of child marriage is above 40 percent.
Taking serious note of the NFHS-4 data, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is set to launch a massive campaign against the child marriage along the lines of his successful move to impose alcohol prohibition in the state.
After the Chief Minister's announcement last month, the state government has tasked top officials with preparing a detailed plan to launch the campaign, according to N. Vijaya Lakshmi, Managing Director, Women Development Corporation.
Mohammad Imran Khan is a Patna-based journalist.
This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.