Sujata Behera, a 17-year-old Dalit at the bottom of India’s caste system, did the unthinkable last year. Just two weeks before her upcoming marriage, she told her parents, who live in a remote village in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, that she had decided not to go ahead with the wedding. The cards had been printed, her clothes had been stitched, and preparations for the ceremonies were nearly done, so how could she back out?
Sujata’s father was livid and told her she had no option but to comply, while her mother tried to reason with her to change her mind. But the teenager was firm: she would marry only after she turned 18 and finished school. Eighteen is the legal age of marriage in India, a law that is widely ignored. Standing by Sujata was a special group of friends whose unwavering presence gave her the strength to stand up to her parents. They explained to the elders why it was such a bad idea for Sujata to get married before her 18th birthday. It was hard to convince them, but finally the family understood their reasons and agreed to put a stop to the nuptials.
The girls who came to support Sujata were members of the Kishori Kalyan Samiti (in English, the Adolescent Girls Group), set up in their village of Kandhamal with help from government programs and nongovernmental organizations, including the Center for Youth and Social Development and Oxfam India.
Adolescent Girls Groups have been created in 34 villages in the last two years across the region where Sujata lives. Hundreds of girls have been given the power to say no to child marriage and save themselves from a lifetime of bad health and the misery of unfulfilled dreams. Sujata is now near the end of secondary school and wants to become a social worker.
“No one can understand the power of activism more than I,” she said. “It saved my life and that of many others here. None of us knew that child marriage was a curse that could actually be lifted from our lives if we decided to do something about it.” It is common for girls in rural Kandhamal to get married at 12 or 13. Not only is there a general lack of awareness regarding the law but people are also ignorant of the severe health consequences that this regressive social practice has on the young.
“In 2013, volunteers came to our village and motivated us girls to form a girls group,” Sujata said. “A training session was held where we learned two major things — first, girls can suffer many health problems if they get married before the age of 18, and second, the legal age of marriage for girls in India is 18 and for boys, 21.
“This knowledge really opened my eyes and I made up my mind to refuse marriage,” she said. “It was a hard decision and even tougher to persuade everyone else to listen to me. In my community, when a girl’s marriage is called off, whatever the reason may be, she is considered unlucky and invariably becomes the subject of gossip and mockery. My parents were adamant because they feared I would become a social pariah.”
United Nations statistics show that 720 million women in the world today have been married before 18. Of these, a third live in India, roughly 240 million. In the state of Odisha, a health survey revealed that 37.5 percent of the currently married women in the age group of 20 to 24 were married under the legal age limit. In the extremely underdeveloped and tribal district of Kandhamal, 35 to 55 percent of girls are pushed into child marriage. Abject poverty and a poor female literacy rate — less than 30 percent among tribal women — contribute to these dismal numbers.
Anil Rout, the district coordinator for the Center for Youth and Social Development, said that forming the girls groups started nearly two and a half years ago as part of efforts to strengthen another nongovernmental group created under the National Rural Health Mission. Once the girls groups had formed, “we sat with them to discuss health issues and other problems related to early marriage,” Rout said, adding that specialist health workers were brought in to talk with the girls.
Much of the girls group’s work is to keep checking on one another’s well-being. In their monthly meetings, they chat about ways to prevent anemia, how to maintain proper hygiene and how to choose the right foods to stay healthy. The older girls are informed about HIV/AIDS and the importance of contraception.
“Through stories and pictures, we conveyed the ill effects that child marriage can have on their health, particularly early pregnancy, which can be fatal for both mother and child,” Rout said. “These meetings were followed up by a two-day training session where we taught them simple ways to maintain good health and hygiene. Gradually, our small effort turned into a revolution of sorts. From various project villages, we regularly got the news of some girl or another raising her voice against child marriage.”
One example is Sunita Digal, who said no to marriage at age 14 and even threatened to hand over the groom’s family to the police if the family didn’t agree. Sunita, who belongs to a low-caste community, said: “I had lost my father, a daily wager, when I was 4. My mother had to step out of home to earn a living to support us three siblings. When someone approached her for my marriage, she was only too willing to send me away because it would have meant one less mouth to feed. When I explained how early marriage could endanger my health, my life, she realized her mistake. But there was a much bigger problem before us.”
Since there was no male in their family, Sunita’s mother, Gelima, was afraid to broach the subject of Sunita’s not marrying directly with the groom’s family. “When they came to finalize everything, my mother hesitatingly told them, but they indirectly threatened us,” Sunita, now 15, said. “So my friends met with them to put across our point of view. When they tried to dismiss us, we told them that if they forced my mother to accept the marriage we would inform the police. Some of the village elders backed us and that resulted in an amicable resolution. My wedding has been postponed till I turn 18.”
Sarada Lahangir writes for the Women’s Feature Service in New Delhi, from which this article has been adapted. [© Women’s Feature Service]