|© UNICEF India/2006|
|Buna Devi, married at 13 and now a mother of two children, attends class at a centre run by a UNICEF-supported non-governmental organization in Bihar’s Patna District.|
UNICEF’s flagship annual report, ‘The State of the World’s Children’, focuses this year on the double dividend of gender equality, which helps both women and children overcome poverty. Here is one in a series of related stories in the run-up to the report’s launch on 11 December.
BIHAR, India, 13 November, 2006 – When Buna Devi, 18, walks to the learning centre in her village in the Patna District of India’s Bihar State, she says she hears her neighbours whispering, “Look at that old woman with two children – she is going to study now, at her age!”
Buna pays them no mind. She is determined to seize the chance to gain an education. It is an unlikely opportunity, given that she grew up in poverty and was married at the age of 13. She had her first child one year later and a second by the time she was 16.
“It never crossed my parents’ mind that I needed an education,” Buna says. “They thought that education was not for the poor.”
Although the legal minimum age for marriage is 18, child marriages remain prevalent in India. An estimated 46 per cent of Indian women are married before they turn 18, while in rural areas the proportion is closer to 55 per cent.
For boys, early marriage brings increased financial responsibility. For millions of girls like Buna, it brings an abrupt end to childhood and a sudden plunge into the responsibilities of adult life – forcing them into a cycle of early pregnancy, poor health and frequent childbearing for which they are utterly unprepared.
Often, early marriage also means an end to education, which is the best chance a young woman has to increase her influence and standing in the household, the labour market and the community.
Beyond basic literacy
So when Nari Gunjan, a non-governmental organization advocating for the empowerment of women, opened a learning centre in Buna’s village, she quickly enrolled.
At the centre, Buna’s education goes beyond basic literacy. She has learned about health, hygiene, child-rearing, sewing, the position of women and girls in society, child labour and the consequences of child marriage.
After spending a few hours at the centre, Buna works in the fields to help supplement the family’s income. “It is a hard life, but I never gave up my determination to become literate,” she says.
Education, the true gem
UNICEF believes it is crucial to make investments in education, particularly girls’ education, not only to help India’s economic development but to ensure that girls have a chance to be children before they take on the responsibilities of marriage.
“I never imagined that someday I would be a literate person,” Buna says. “But I did become one, and I am so proud that I cannot talk about my sense of achievement in words.
“I feel that the jewellery women wear is superficial,” she adds. “Our real adornment is education.”
UNICEF Policy on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Girls and Women