Marriage is no child’s play. By Shobha Shukla

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According to a report by UNICEF, India is home to the largest number of child brides in the world, accounting for more than one third of the global total of 650 million women and girls who were married as children. Of the country’s current total of 223 million child brides, 102 million were married before turning 15. Despite a legal ban on marriage of girls below 18 years of age, 27% of the girls in India are married before their 18th birthday and 7% are married before the age of 15. Girls living in rural areas are at greater risk. Structural inequalities, local culture and tradition, lack of education, poverty and insecurity, are some of the factors that are cited for this social evil that plagues our society.

Efforts, largely spearheaded by civil society organisations, have been able to reduce India’s annual rate of child marriage to 5.5%, but a lot more remains to be done.

During tenth virtual session of the 10th Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights (APCRSHR), Dr Pramesh Chandra Bhatnagar, Senior Director (Programme) at Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI), shared how peer-led approaches under the aegis of More Than Brides Alliance are helping to change socio-cultural norms to reduce child marriage and promote youth friendly sexual and reproductive health services in 40 districts of India.

Dr Bhatnagar presented the details of one such comprehensive strategy being implemented by VHAI that has succeeded in not only making 44 villages child marriage free in Khalikote block of Ganjam district in Odisha, but has also brought about meaningful socio-economic changes in the lives of adolescent girls and boys through their active participation.

A baseline survey done in 177 villages of this block found that knowledge about sexual and reproductive health in adolescents was very low at 7%. Only 10-11% girls had any knowledge about menstruation, even among those who had started menarche. Only 2-3% youth knew about any HIV/AIDS related information. And yet, surprisingly there was a high prevalence of premarital sex, with more than 40% of the girls being in such relationships. Thus brewed a lethal potion comprising low knowledge of sexual and reproductive health and higher level of sexual activity among adolescents. The baseline survey also helped to identify barriers for adolescents' access to sexual and reproductive health services and reasons for high prevalence of child marriages.

The next step was mapping the adolescent population in the project area. This was followed by workshops to facilitate formation and capacity building of more than 500 adolescent groups comprising over 11000 adolescent boys and girls. Group members themselves chose their peer educators. These peer educators were then trained in sexual and reproductive health and life-skills education. Capacity building of the existing community groups and community leaders of the villages was also done to engage diverse groups of actors in promoting adolescent sexual health and prevention of child marriage.

Adolescent girls were motivated to develop their Charter of Demand, focussed particularly on child marriage. The women’s community groups developed a community-based monitoring tool with indicators on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and child marriage. This proved to be a very empowering tool that has helped the local community to monitor outreach activities in the villages for not only addressing youth’s sexual and reproductive health issues but also looking into other developmental projects taking place in the community.

The community groups have monthly meetings wherein the villagers come up with a village health improvement plan, which the workers are supposed to fulfil and report in the next meeting. If they have any problem the village women and adolescent girls make the required intervention, especially by visiting the local staff.

This comprehensive model has used a multi-pronged approach that goes beyond preventing child marriages and improving sexual and reproductive health of adolescents. It has also resulted in economic and social empowerment of the girls, which includes giving them vocational training and supporting them to start small initiatives. The two major fields which the girls of these villages preferred, and where they excelled most, were computer training and mobile phone repairing. Providing the girls with bicycles proved to be a game changer as it empowered them to commute easily to school and training venues, even if they were far away from their homes.

Adolescent leadership was enhanced through capacity building, promoting their education and social skills, helping them in getting vocational training and providing them with job opportunities. Alongside, engaging other stakeholders, like village health workers, school teachers, local panchayat members and district government officials has helped in influencing the socio-cultural norms around child marriage and youth sexual and reproductive health.

These efforts have helped in averting 128 proposed child marriage cases, in which the girls, peer educators and their groups played a major role, by negotiating and advocating directly with the families involved. Also, as of date, no child marriage has taken place in 44 villages since the past two years.

The project has also helped in increasing institutional deliveries and birth registrations to 95%, uptake of contraceptives, and community monitoring of adolescent friendly sexual and reproductive health services.

70 information dissemination centres were formed for adolescents’ vocational and recreational activities as well as for dissemination of information on sexual and reproductive health, including demonstration of use of contraceptive products by government health staff. These centres are managed by the adolescent peer educators themselves. 11 government health centres have been converted into adolescent friendly health centres. They are open in the afternoon only for the youngsters, who can visit them after school hours to discuss sexual and reproductive health related issues with an auxiliary nurse, midwife or a medical doctor.

Dr Bhatnagar informed that even during the COVID-19 lockdown, regular interaction with the peer leaders and adolescent group members has continued through social media applications (like WhatsApp) and online sessions on themes such as menstrual hygiene, sexual and reproductive health and safety precautions for COVID-19. A local phone HelpLine has also been created on which queries on COVID-19, sexual and reproductive health issues, reporting of child marriage cases are answered (7 am to 9 pm, six days a week). Some girls were trained to stitch masks and this helped them earn an extra income.

However, the pandemic has given a setback to many global efforts to put an end to child marriage. According to a recent report published in the Lancet, up to 2·5 million more girls around the world are at risk of marriage in the next 5 years because of the pandemic. An estimated 500,000 more girls are likely to be forced into child marriage and 1 million more are expected to become pregnant in 2020 itself due to its economic impact.

The situation in India is no better. According to the Indian Ministry of Women and Child Development, during the pandemic lockdown period of March to June, its nodal agency Childline intervened to prevent 5584 such underage marriages across India. Many more must have gone unreported. When the lockdown eased in June and July, child marriages spiked, marking a 17% increase over the previous year.

We are getting pushed back further in our efforts to implement Agenda 2030 whose sustainable development Goals (SDGs) target 5.3 envisages to eliminate all harmful practices (such as child, early and forced marriages), and one of its indicators is the proportion of women aged 20 to 24 years who were married before age 18, which still remains considerably high with an annual increment of 12 million child brides.

(Shobha Shukla is the award-winning founding Managing Editor of CNS (Citizen News Service) and is a feminist, health and development justice advocate. She is a former senior Physics faculty of Loreto Convent College and current Coordinator of Asia Pacific Media Network to end TB & tobacco and prevent NCDs (APCAT Media). Follow her on Twitter @shobha1shukla or read her writings here www.bit.ly/ShobhaShukla)

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