AGRA, India — Young people aspire to have a comfortable home, a rewarding career and a loving family — and they work hard to put together the pieces of this perfect life. But what if a person never gets a decent shot at fulfilling one’s ambitions or can break free from the cycle of illiteracy, early marriage and poverty? Raj Kumar, in his mid-40s, is one of those unlucky men who had to leave school in his teens to earn a living. He also had to get married before he was ready to take on the responsibility of a wife and then children that followed almost immediately.
“This is one reason why I have zero tolerance towards early marriage,” said Kumar, a resident of a slum, Nai Abadi, on the outskirts of Agra in Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India. “It has devastating consequences for both girls and boys. There was no one to save me, but if anyone informs me about an underage alliance in our neighbourhood now, I make every possible effort to dissuade the family from going through with it. This regressive social custom has robbed many of their childhood.”
Kumar wasn’t always an anti-child-marriage crusader. An intervention involving men and boys in his community, initiated by World Vision India, an international humanitarian agency working on gender and child rights issues, enabled him to first recognize and then find solutions to some of the gravest social problems afflicting his lot. In several poor sections around Agra, World Vision has catalyzed the formation of Men Care groups, which have become a strong force against gender injustice meted out in the name of tradition.
“Around 24 all-men groups have been formed in different traditional communities of Agra and regular discussions are held to talk to them about existing gender stereotypes and inequalities within their families and communities,” said Karoline Davis, the head of gender and development at World Vision India. “The idea is to address these issues from within by involving the men because it is they who are often the perpetrators.”
Febamol, the gender and development coordinator of World Vision in Agra, noted: “Generally, women in these localities have no real decision-making powers and are deprived of even their basic rights — to education, sanitation, health care and safety, among others. Whereas we had started out by creating women’s groups in a bid to empower them, we realized that it would not work till the men were not on board.
In 2013, we hand-picked 60 men who showed an inclination towards this change, and they, in turn, set up their own groups. By redefining the parameters of masculinity, the Men Care volunteers tackle many problems that emerge out of a rigid patriarchal social set-up. Child marriage is one such serious concern.”
Not long ago, Kumar, who heads the Nai Abadi Men Care group, helped to make a difference in the life of Rajkumari, 16, the daughter of a rickshaw puller and a daily wager. Last year, Rajkumari went through a difficult phase, which started after her older sister’s marriage was fixed in a family from a community nearby. What ought to have been a joyous occasion for Rajkumari became a nightmare once relatives told her parents that it would be more economical if both Madhu, 23, her sister, and Rajkumari got married in the same “mandap,” or marriage altar. As they had already taken a huge loan they could ill afford, they decided to go along with this plan.
“This was the easiest way to save on marriage expenses and dowry, said the girls’ mother, Munni. “Since her father drinks heavily, we were not certain of his health and wanted to marry [Rajkumari] her off while he was still around.”
Yet the parents overlooked the fact that their actions were illegal and would expose their daughter to trauma. The only good they did for her was to convince her prospective in-laws to let her stay home till she turned 18. Rajkumari, who was not happy with her nuptials, said she agreed to the wedding plan because of her father’s poor health.
“I did not have any option,” she said. “At least, none that I knew.” After the wedding, however, her in-laws pressured the girls’ parents to send Rajkumari to live with them. They had almost agreed to do so until Raj Kumar heard about it. Appalled at the marriage and the impending “fauna,” or bridal send-off, he spoke to the parents to counsel them against it.
“Like most parents of the bride, they lacked the confidence to stand up to the groom’s family,” Kumar said. “They felt this would have an adverse impact on their elder daughter’s relationship. So we told them about the laws they were flouting. But more importantly, we assured them that we would stand by them when they informed Rajkumari’s in-laws of their decision.” Fortunately, everything worked out well.
Now, Rajkumari is taking a beautician’s course and has grand plans of starting her own small salon one day, and though her mother knows that this would require a lot of money she encourages her wholeheartedly. “Raj Kumar made us realize that it is essential to let girls follow their dreams instead of just marrying them off. Rajkumari can take care of herself so why should she end up like me?” her mother asked.
Had this incident occurred three years earlier, Rajkumari would have been married and a mother by now. Child marriages are quite common in Uttar Pradesh; as per the 2011 census, 17 million children between 10 and 19 years old in India are married and, of these, the highest number, 2.8 million, is in Uttar Pradesh.
Elaborating on the reasons behind child marriages, Pramod Kumar, 42, the only graduate in the Nai Abadi Men Care group, said: “Over 95 percent of the men in this area are involved in shoemaking and have no fixed earnings. Generations have worked in small, suffocated homes making little money. So, girls, in particular, are married off as soon as possible because it is the easiest way to get rid of their responsibility.”
Raj Kumar Paras, 39, another member of the Men Care group, admitted that “Previously, our energies were spent in arranging money — either to make ends meet or pay for marriage. Our horizons have widened considerably, and we have begun to comprehend the implications of early marriage, domestic violence, illiteracy. We are there for anyone who needs our backing to fight these problems and mentor the younger boys to follow our lead.”
The positive influence of the Men Care groups has been widespread. Despite immense pressure, one 19-year-old has neither given up his studies nor has he consented to marriage. Moreover, he has been instrumental in stopping the union of a little girl from his neighborhood with a 14-year-old boy from Rajasthan.
“Ten of us from the Men Care group went and told the respective families that this was against the law and that we would inform the police. The groom’s family created a furor but we didn’t back down. In the end, we triumphed,” he said.
© Women’s Feature Service
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Chetna Verma is a freelance journalist who was formerly an assistant editor with the Charkha Development Communication Network. She has also worked in rural communities in the conflict-affected regions of Jammu and Kashmir for over four years, focusing on training youths to write about their development issues. As part of a National Media Fellowship provided by National Foundation of India, she has worked in the states of Jammu and Kashmir and Uttarakhand highlighting stories on women’s health in the context of climate change. She has also been awarded with a Laadli Media and Advertising Award for Gender Sensitivity in 2013-14 for her article on women in conflict, which focuses on women who are fighting against the denial and deprivation that they face in a conflict situation.