On Stage Against Child Marriage
By Taru Tuohiniemi
MALDA, India, 1 July 2011 – Fifteen-year-old, Anita Puddar is holding back tears as her father is planning to marry her. Anita’s mother shouts, trying to convince the father to change his mind. After a while the police come and set the father straight.
In a grassy open area, 300 hundred people, mostly men and boys are following closely this street play, which spreads messages against child marriage and promotes girls education. The scene takes place in Hosnabad Diyara village in Malda District, in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal.
Anita joined the theatre group a year and a half ago after her parents planned for Anita’s marriage, which she refused.
“They arranged my marriage with my cousin but never asked my opinion. I was very upset,” Anita recalls. “I didn’t share my feelings with my parents but asked if they had set the date for marriage. Finally I told my mother that I wanted to study.”
Some neighbours and especially the community’s young women supported Anita’s struggle. Anita did not wait for her parents to change their mind but called her cousin. “I told her that I will not marry her brother. I want to study and I didn’t like him. He didn’t match my idea of a husband’s personality,” Anita says firmly. “If you feel negatively about something you can resist it.”
Being in the theatre group has given Anita the power to voice her opinion.
“Now people recognize me and know who I am. They listen to me. Young boys and girls contact me if they have problems in their lives,” says Anita. “If young girls can form a group they will be heard. Elders should ask what we want in life and support us and not decide on our behalf.”
My childhood, my right!
Indian legislation banned child marriage in 1929 and enforced it with the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 making it illegal for girls to marry below 18 and for boys below 21 years. Child marriage is an offense punishable with fine up to INR 100,000, or up to two years of imprisonment, or both. However, few get prosecuted.
The Dowry Prohibition Act (1961) makes giving or receiving dowry a crime with fine up to INR 15 000, or the amount of dowry – whichever is higher and imprisonment for six months to 5 years.
In West Bengal, Malda district has the second highest percentage of girls getting married before the legal age. Six out of 10 married women in Malda are child brides and almost a fifth of adolescent girls aged 15-19 years are mothers.
“Last year we prevented 39 child marriages,” says Sutapa Mukhopadahyay, District Social Welfare Officer of Malda.
A joint initiative of the Malda district administration and UNICEF promotes the value of a girl child with a focus on reducing child marriage. The initiative began in 2009 in 30 selected villages and has gradually spread to the rest of the district.
The initiative aims at raising awareness about child marriage, strengthening adolescent groups and mobilizing communities through folk media and theatre plays.
The initiative’s campaign slogan “My childhood, my right!” is now commonly known in the district.
Girls’ education and their economic independence are seen as key solutions in Malda. Trafficking is prevalent on the pretext of child marriage when children are in reality sent out for work.
“It is useless to talk about prevention of child marriage if the girls have no alternative options for livelihood and will continue to be seen as parents’ liability and burden,” says Panchali Saha, a member of the Child Welfare Committee. “Vocational training is offered to adolescents in the district but new challenges emerge when they try market their products. They need new skills.”
Learning from mistakes
Looking back, Anita’s mother, Kalpana Puddar, says she and her husband felt they were not doing a good thing.
“We knew the boy and his family. They are rich, and we are not. We thought our daughter would be well off and have a happy life. Anita is doing well in her studies, and that’s why there was demand for her,” Kalpana explains.
“Nowadays I have no problem with her studying. We also discussed with my husband that we couldn’t have forgiven ourselves if something bad would happen to her,” Kalpana says referring to teenage pregnancy and its dire consequences to many girls and new-born babies.
“We were aware that child marriage is illegal, but that is the practice here. But now we know better. All families should take our example.”
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