Nautanwa (Maharajganj district in Uttar Pradesh): Statistics never lie - they only help unravel some harsh truths. Like many social indicators in Maharajganj district only confirm that this district is one of the most undesired places for girls to live in. While 73.6 per cent of females here marry before the legal age of 18 years, the female literacy rate is a mere 28 per cent. One can find a child bride in almost every second home. While poverty, human trafficking, low birth registrations are some of the other major issues which the residents are battling with, child marriage undoubtedly tops all these concerns.
Tales of torture and trauma of these child brides abound in the area. Early pregnancies resulting in several health complications, a single man marrying several girls at same time, bringing home other women, are all passe here. Ill-treated by husband and in-laws often these girls are forced to have relations with other male members of the family.
But there is now a ray of hope now. The concentrated efforts made by workers of Gram Niyojan Kendra-Plan India to tackle this menace are paying off. Lifestyle changes can be seen in some of the families living in the Indian hamlets.
GNK is a national level NGO that aims at facilitating the process of rural development and in addition aims at empowering the marginalized section of population, especially women by initiating development action based on justice and equality while Plan India is a nationally registered child centered community development organizations, and has been operating in India since 1979.
Today one can find 14 year old girl (name withheld) a child bride married when she was just 11 years, refusing point blank to go to her in-laws house before she turns 18 and completes her Intermediate. There is another girl aged 21, in the final year of BA, who wants to do BEd and become a teacher. This girl hailing from the Schedule Caste community is adamant that she will only marry a boy who understands her social commitments and knows how to respect a woman. Then there is a 20 year old girl hailing from the minority community, who after witnessing the plight of her elder sister (who had an early marriage) is determined not to marry till she completes her graduation.
All these three are brave girls, beacon of hope in a society dried up with suffocating customs and social norms. All these girls are setting an example and leading a silent revolution against early marriage of girls.
The 14 years old girl mentioned above, lives in a non-descriptive village on the Indian side of the porous Indo-Nepal border in Maharajganj district. She was married at the tender age of 11 to her maternal cousin three years ago, but now at 14 she is determined not to go to her husband’s house before she is 18. She is studying in class eight and is keen to finish, at least her intermediate examination before she steps into her in-laws house. Her mother supports her fully. She said to Citizen News Service – CNS that her daughter’s early marriage was chiefly because of emotional reasons as her maternal aunt was not keeping good health and wanted her only son to be married off in her lifetime.
“My son-in law, who is also my nephew, was going off to Saudi Arabia for work and my sister insisted on the nikaah (Muslim marriage vows). But even then I had felt I was being unjust to my daughter but it was the menfolk who had arranged everything and I could not say anything,” said her mother holding the youngest of her six children in her arms. She said her great consolation was when she learnt that Ruksati would only take place when the son-in-law returned from Saudi three years later. She called it Allah ki marzi (divine intervention).
As fate would have it some members of the GNK-Plan India came to the village who have been working on addressing such social evils as child marriage. The group after counseling was inducting girls and boys in a leadership programme called Babu bahini group. This 14 years old girl managed to convince her parents and joined the group. This decision proved to be the turning point in her life. She gained confidence and decided that while she cannot undo her past but at least she can postpone her ruksati till she turns 18. She declared this to her family who accepted it after some resistance.
She has been trained in this programme for a year now. Her husband is due to return to India after completing a three year period this summer. Earlier she would have to go to his home after the traditional ruksati ceremony but now she is confident that she will have her way and convince him and her in-laws to delay this for a few more years.
Another 20 years old girl lives a little further, in Pahuni village and is graduating in Arts. Her elder sister was married off at an early age and had only studied Urdu and Arabic with no formal education. Her husband not only ill-treated her physically but despite all her pleading and even when she delivered two sons he married yet again. This 20 years old girl recalls the horror of how her ‘baji' used to run back to their house but he used to come drunk, and physically and verbally abuse her and drag her back home, beating her all the way.
Some miles away in Kailashnagar, there resides another flag bearer of gender justice. Working with GNK-Plan India for the past few years, 21 year old Kiran who comes from Schedule Caste community, is in the final year of her graduation and wishes to pursue BEd and become a teacher. Her mother who is Shiksha Mitra (assistant teacher) gives full support to her. Her mother will thus talk to the boy and family about letting her continue her interests and if he agrees only then will she marry him. Kiran and her family are exceptions in their community. In their caste no girl would dare take such a bold step and give so much importance to studies over marriage. When asked whether Kiran will openly try to dissuade girls from child marriage she is frank and says 'no' but hopes girls will learn by her example.
“Girls should resist and not get married off at the age of 10-12 years and spend the rest of their lives as an adult when they are still a child,” says Kiran adding that an early marriage leads to early pregnancy and complications.
Let us hope gender justice dawns in the lives of young girls and women in this region. (CNS)
(The author is a senior journalist based in Lucknow, India and writes for Citizen News Service – CNS. Website: www.citizen-news.org)