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

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

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 hastens her steps as she walks by her neighbour’s house.

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

“Last year, he would show me his fingers and his thumb,” Kusma said. “Each finger indicates a year. He means that I have just four more years to study, and then I will have to 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 – and 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 theState 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 neighbors sleep – and when she’s done with that, she writes and paints. Most of her work centres around 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 both in and out of the classroom, conducting the morning assembly for both 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 of weaving a disparate set of ideas coupled with her flair arrests their attention. The words flow and so do her thoughts, and in unison.

But more importantly, a genuine commitment is felt/heard/sensed 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 members of the community. 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 talks with confidence to his peers, other fathers/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 make sure she isn’t married as a child,” commits 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 got my sister married 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 own 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 can help defer our marriage if we can support our parents financially.”

“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 fili/complete application forms. I get ashamed at the government offices when I can’t fill-up the online application on the 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 whisper to her to leave for home as it is getting late.

“Boys get the freedom to do everything and also be late to home. We don’t.”

“Why can’ 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 along 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?!”