"I have a dream, and no one should stop me"

Throughout the day, Kusma’s thoughts oscillate between the high of becoming a doctor and the low of getting married before she achieves her dream

Idhries Ahmad
Kusma Kumari poses outside her classroom in the Pirra government school in Kanke block of Ranchi in the central Indian state of Jharkhand.
UNICEF India
25 September 2019

In Ranchi, India, 13-year-old Kusma hastened her steps as she walked by her neighbour’s house.

She is noticeably unnerved – her neighbour is a 70-year-old village elder who is well-respected and listened to by everyone in the community. Kusma kept her head down, but she couldn’t help but notice her neighbour’s hand stretched in front of him. Four long, crooked fingers point toward the sky.

“Last year, he would show me his fingers and thumb,” Kusma said. “Each finger indicates a year. He means I have four more years to study, and then I must get married.”

Kusma keeps moving, never breaking her stride until she reaches the Pirra Government School. 

“He is an elder, so I don’t respond,” Kusma said. “But it will never happen - I will not get married. Instead, I will study and become a great doctor.”

Every day, Kusma steels herself to those around her. When questioned about her dream, she bites back with smart answers and probing questions – sometimes sharp retorts.

“I have a dream, and no one should stop me,” Kusma said. “Why shouldn’t I be able to become a doctor?”

As she speaks, however, Kusma’s firm resolve begins to dissipate. “I don’t know,” Kusma said. “Maybe they will marry me before I become a doctor.”

Kushma Kumari(15), Priyanshi Kumari (13), Barkha Kumari (14), on their way to Pirra government school in Kanke block of Ranchi in the central Indian state of Jharkhand.
UNICEF India
Kushma Kumari(15), Priyanshi Kumari (13), Barkha Kumari (14), on their way to Pirra government school in Kanke block of Ranchi in the central Indian state of Jharkhand.

Throughout the day, Kusma’s thoughts oscillate between the high of becoming a doctor and the low of getting married before she achieves her dream.

As a result, Kusma’s imagination pendulums: she sees herself both as a confident young woman treating patients at the hospital and a crushed young mother cooking food for her children and in-laws.

Kusma’s confidence in becoming a doctor is not misplaced, but neither are her fears of getting married. Jharkhand, Kusma’s home, continues to be a state with the third-highest prevalence of child marriage in the country. Though the State has made progress towards ending child marriage, close to 38 per cent of girls in Jharkhand are still married before they turn 18.

Working hard to achieve her dreams 

Every morning, Kusma wakes up at 3:30 a.m. She studies while her parents, siblings and neighbours sleep – and when she’s done with that, she writes and paints. Her work centres mostly on children and their right to fulfil their dreams. Once Kusma arrives at school, she continues along the same vein, pushing those around her to recognise children’s rights.

Kusma Kumari studies in her home in Kanke block of Ranchi in the central Indian state of Jharkhand.
UNICEF India
Kusma Kumari studies in her home in Kanke block of Ranchi in the central Indian state of Jharkhand.

Kusma was trained through a UNICEF child reporter programme, which aims to give children like Kusma awareness about child rights so they, in turn, can pass on the knowledge to their communities.

Ever since, she has become a leader in and out of the classroom, conducting the morning assembly for teachers and students. Near the end of each session, Kusma speaks about a “topic of the day” – one of which is child marriage.

“Child marriage is illegal,” said Kusma, addressing a crowd of children, adolescents and adults. “Even the chef who cooks at a marriage that weds a child will be prosecuted.”

Kusma has gained the confidence to speak at public forums and interact with public representatives, including government officials and high-level community leaders.

She repeats the topic in the evening when she leads a group of child reporters to talk to the village community. Kusma speaks directly to the fathers present in the meeting. Her knack for weaving disparate ideas, coupled with her flair, arrests their attention. The words flow, and so do her thoughts, and they do so in unison.

But more importantly, a genuine commitment is felt/heard/sensed in her tone. A little anger, too.

“Don’t marry her young. You will be more respected and known in the community if your daughter becomes a doctor.”

In the corner of the room, Kusma’s father, Parasnath Mahto, listens patiently as his daughter talks to community members. Kusma’s father is a local mechanic and repairs bicycles. Of late, he has started to mend motorcycles, too. This has meant his daily income has increased from INR 70 (USD1) to INR 200 (USD 3).

He beams with pride as his daughter confidently talks to his peers and other men in the community.

“Kusma has become confident,” says Mahto, surrounded by Kusma, his three other  (daughters?) and a son in his home. “I will ensure she isn’t married as a child,” says Mahto.

Kusma Kumari interacts with community members in Kanke block of Ranchi in the central Indian state of Jharkhand.
UNICEF India
Kusma Kumari interacts with community members in Kanke block of Ranchi in the central Indian state of Jharkhand.

“She will study as long as she likes. We will not marry her before she is 20,” adds Mahto. Mahto consciously repeats ‘20’ many times during his conversation with us. Kusma’s mom nods in agreement. She works as a cook in the Government school where Kusma studies.

“I can’t become a doctor at 20. I need more time.” Kusma keeps interrupting her father. There is a happy banter in the house that has been built recently.

Mahto repeats he won’t get Kusma married (or she won’t be married) before she is 18 but remains noncommittal on extending it beyond 20. 

“Baba (father) loves us, but he married my sister at 20. She was a good student,” says Kusma as her sister sits beside her. “At that time, my father was not keeping well, and he cited that as the reason to marry her early. He will do the same with me, too.”

“Girls are considered a liability, and parents want to get them married as early as possible,” says Kusma’s sister, Kanta Kumari.

Kusma Kumari hugs her father Parasnath Mahto in his shop in Kanke block of Ranchi in the central Indian state of Jharkhand.
UNICEF India
Kusma Kumari hugs her father Parasnath Mahto in his shop in Kanke block of Ranchi in the central Indian state of Jharkhand.

“And this is why, as girls, we should be provided skills in school which would give us the safety to decide our future,” says Kusma.

Wise beyond her years, Kusma talks about providing skills training to girls in school. “Skilling is important for us as it will give us confidence and help defer our marriage if we can financially support our parents.”

“I also need to know how I can become a doctor. The school should provide us with information on the scholarships that are available to us. We should be taught computers at school to help us fill out application forms. I get ashamed at government offices when I can’t complete the online application on my computer.

“There are no computers or computer teachers in my school. As a result, we do not have access to the information and knowledge available online on websites.” 

Kusma also wants her school to teach subjects in English. 

“Every subject is in Hindi, and If I have to become a doctor, I need to learn things in English.”

As Kusma ends her talk, her friends tell her to leave for home as it is getting late. “Boys get the freedom to do everything and be late home. We don’t.”
“Why can’t we live as freely as them? I want to live all the freedom in the world to achieve my dreams.”

As we leave the Kusma’s place, she accompanies us to the bus stand with her father.  All through the journey, she pushes her father to promise her to let her become a doctor.

“I want to become a doctor. Why can’t I?!”