|Bablu, 15, outside her home in Rajasthan, India. A year ago, Bablu’s parents arranged her marriage to a 45-year-old man who was unemployed and illiterate. She received support from the ‘precheta’, a community educator and local government women’s advocate to cancel the marriage.|
By Chris Niles
NEW YORK, USA, 22 April 2010 – Bablu, 15, lives with her family in a small village in rural Rajasthan. She was 13 when her community decided she should be married. “I did not want to get married,” she said. “I thought my life would be completely ruined.”
Child marriage is illegal in India, but in poor regions, such as the north-western state of Rajasthan, there is enormous social and economic pressure to defy the law. More than half of girls here are married by age 18 – often setting up a lifetime of health and social problems for these young women and their children.
‘A disempowered girl’
“Child marriage is against child rights,” said UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Sulagna Roy. “It influences children’s and mother’s health. It continues a cycle of poverty. It leaves a disempowered girl.”
Bablu’s father, Buma Ram, said community pressure led the family to agree to the early marriage. But new support structures for adolescent girls are arriving in Rajasthan. Bablu’s aunt Durga – a village health-care worker – is part of a programme supported by the European Commission and UNICEF to give strength to families who decide not to marry their daughters young.
“When discussing these issues, we are not here to lecture but to support [communities] in finding solutions to these problems,” said European Commission Representative to India Daniele Smadja.
|A community educator explains the harmful effects of child marriage to a group of women and girls in Jodhpur. UNICEF and the European Commission are supporting local partners in Rajasthan, India to end the practice.|
Through such discussions, Mr. Ram became convinced that it was in his family’s best interest to let Bablu continue her studies. “I get out of the house, I attend Durga’s meetings,” he said. “I now realize that one should not get married so soon.”
An end to harmful practices
UNICEF and the European Commission work with government at all levels in India to help families who decide not to marry off their young daughters. Local health care workers like Durga are at the heart of the programme.
At the community meetings held by the UNICEF-European Commission partnership, villagers are encouraged to discuss issues such as domestic violence and girls’ education, and to find ways they can all agree on ending harmful social practices. The programme encourages communities to realize that everyone benefits when girls stay in school and delay marriage.
The meetings also try to find economic alternatives for girls who choose not to marry.
|Women and adolescent girls hold out their right hands in a pledge to abolish child marriage, in Rajasthan, India. When community members come together and express their intention to end child marriage, they make it easier for individual families to abandon the practice.|
“The best way to tackle this social menace is to empower the girl,” said Jodhpur District Collector Naveen Mahajan, a local official in Rajasthan. “When I talk about empowerment, it’s not just not making them go to school. It’s trying to find way to make them economically self reliant, independent.”
Saving others from early marriage
Bablu is grateful for her father’s change of heart. She says she would have killed herself if she had been forced to marry. She is now determined to stay in school and help save others from the fate she avoided.
Her example has already inspired wider change. Hearing about Bablu, five girls in nearby villages stopped their own marriages.
And Bablu remains committed to standing up for any girl who refuses marriage. “I will not let any young girls marry,” she said. “I will take legal action. I want to become somebody.”