India, ending child marriage by making young girls the agents of change

Once shy, the adolescent girls of Gumma Block in India Gajapati district now speak out, laugh and dance to live the life upto their expectation.

Though child marriage continues to remain a serious global concern, interventions to contrast it carried out by governments and global organisations are starting to show results. Raising hope to end the practice, the Gumma block in India’s Gajapati district, populated by tribal populations, has taken centre stage by becoming child marriage free thanks to a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) programme involving thousands of girls in adolescent clubs to learn and share their views on the topic.

child marriage
Adolescent Girls Club members in Tala Abasingh village gather to share their views © Basudev Mahapatra

The issue of child marriage

Defined as marriage before the age of 18, child marriage is particularly prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. It will affect an average of a little over 15 million girls a year starting from 2021 to 2030 if present trends continue, the UNFPA cautions.

For example in India almost 27 per cent of women between the ages of 20 and 24 got married when they were still girls and a little over 20 per cent of men aged 25 to 29 married as boys, reveals India’s 2015-16 National Family Health Survey (NFHS). The report also states that nearly 8 per cent of women between 15 and 19 years of age attain motherhood or pregnancy.

The country loses 56 billion dollars a year as a result of adolescent pregnancy, high secondary school dropout rates and joblessness among young women, according to the UNFPA’s State of World Population 2016. Despite special laws and legal provisions for the prohibition of child marriage, objectives remain unfulfilled because of lack of public awareness and insufficient enforcement.

child marriage india
A child marriage takes place in India’s Bhopal city as part of a mass marriage ceremony © Hindustan Times/Getty Images

The case of Gumma

300 kilometres south of Bhubaneswar, the capital of the eastern Indian state of Odisha, Gumma block – an administrative unit below that of district and above that of small town or village – has suffered social ailments such as high rates of school dropout among girls, early marriage and adolescent motherhood. This until two years ago the UNFPA decided to intervene under the Action for Adolescent Girls programme.

Adolescence among girls was almost missing. Early marriage, which often resulted in motherhood and pregnancy at a tender age placing the lives of both the mothers and their children at risk, was rampant,” according to the programme’s manager Sanjukta Tripathy from the agency implementing it, People’s Rural Education Movement. “It happened because parents weren’t aware,” community leader Mariyam Raita commented.

Ashakiran Centre
Girls participating in an interactive learning session at the Ashakiran Centre © Basudev Mahapatra

Change from below

Though the task of fighting the age-old practice was difficult, it was made possible by community involvement and education, and because it was the adolescent girls from the communities themselves to have taken on the role of agents of change, Tripathy explains.

At least 3416 girls between 10 and 19 years of age came together through 211 adolescent clubs across Gumma. Resource centres called Ashakiran equipped with computers, printers, internet facilities and television sets worked as safe spaces for meeting, learning, sharing ideas, discussing issues and watching movies. “The change is now visible. These girls who didn’t know about computers are now seeing them physically, touching and operating them. This is a big thing for our girls,” said Mariyam Raita.

Skill Training
Girls of the Gumma block receiving skill training © Basudev Mahapatra

Inspiring outcomes

Girls like Ankita who stopped her education at class VIII have been sent to school again. Many like Phulmani have convinced their parents to defer their marriage until they’ve attained adulthood, whilst Ranjita and others who married early have decided to delay pregnancy. After receiving skill training many of the girls are now working outside the district and some are self-employed.

“Surpassing the shyness, these girls now speak out, laugh, play and dance without any inhibition,” Tripathy says recalling the initial days of intervention. The outcomes aren’t only inspiring but also bear enormous possibilities for wider replication to end child marriage in other areas of India and the world.

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