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One girl’s stand against early marriage in India

© UNICEF India/2009/ Khemka
Arfa Khatun, 13, raises her hand at the National Child Labor Project (NCLP) school in Purulia. Besides providing basic education, the NCLP runs a Child Activist Initiative, where girls learn leadership qualities, problem solving skills, communication skills and Child Rights.

By Angela Walker

PURULIA DISTRICT, India, 04 January 2010 – Jakir Ansari used to work in the circus as a clown, and his face and arms are studded with scars from where the knives that were thrown at him missed their mark. Today he works as a day labourer, earning about 1,200 rupees ($26) per month to support his family.

His youngest daughter, Arfa Khatun, was sent out to work as a maid when she was just 8-years-old. Mr. Ansari had planned to marry her off when she turned 13, just as he had done with her two sisters.

But Arfa took a stand almost unheard of in her traditional Muslim community. She said no.

“Of course, one day, we will all get married,” said Arfa. “But not before 18, and not before my studies are finished.”

The strength to say ‘no’

Arfa and her friend Saima attend the National Child Labour Project (NCLP) school run by the Government’s Labour Department. The school’s mission is to improve the lives of working children by enrolling them in school and restoring their basic rights.

© UNICEF India/2009/ Khemka
Arfa Khatun stands outside her hut with her mother and her friend Saima Khatun.

UNICEF supports 23 schools in the Purulia district. Each has created groups to educate students about their rights, as well as to improve leadership, communication and problem solving skills.
“For many of these children, school is the only place where they are treated as a child. Even when they are with their families they are expected to work. They are treated as earners,” said Prosenjit Kundu, Assistant Labour Commissioner in Purulia. 

“Getting children out of work and into school has empowered these young girls,” said Lori Calvo, UNICEF West Bengal Chief of Office. “Knowledge of their rights has given them the strength to say no to child marriage and complete their education.”

A cycle driven by poverty

West Bengal has one of the highest rates of child marriage in India. Across the country, nearly one half (47 per cent) of women ages 20-24 are estimated to have been married before the age of 18.

There are national laws to prevent child marriage and punish those guilty of promoting it, including a Child Marriage Restraint Act that was first passed in 1929. Yet only a handful of such cases have been registered.

In Purulia, approximately 90 per cent of the total population of more than 2.5 million lives in rural areas. It is estimated that a third of all families in the district live below the poverty line.

The desires for another earner, or for more children to send out to work, are driving forces behind the district’s cycle of child marriage.

An asset for the whole family

“The children love to come to school,” said Gulam Rabbani Ansary, the girls’ teacher at the NCLP school. “When a girl is educated she will take care of all of her children. A girl’s education is an asset for her entire family.”

Initially, Arfa’s father, Ansari, was not ready to accept his youngest daughter’s decision. So Arfa turned to NCLP for support.

“My elder sisters were not ready to get married at that early age, but I am more determined than my sisters,” said Arfa. “And I’m getting support from my school.” 

In the end, Mr. Ansari was convinced by his daughter and the pleas of her teacher and fellow students. She remains in school and will not get married until she is ready. She is even teaching her mother to read and write.



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