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UNICEF-supported initiative aims to raise awareness about child marriage in India

© UNICEF India/ 2011/Slezic
Anita Puddar,15, (right) tries hard to convince her father to cancel her marriage in front of a large audience. An actress in a play, Anita is spreading awareness about child marriage and importance of education of girl child among villagers of Hosnabad Diyara village in Malda district in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal.

By Taru Tuohiniemi

MALDA, India, 19 August 2011 – In Hosnabad Diyara village in Malda District, in the eastern Indian state of West Benga, Anita Puddar, 15, holds back tears as her father plans to marry her off. Anita’s mother shouts, trying to convince the father to change his mind. After a while the police come and set the father straight.

In a grassy open area, 300 hundred people, mostly men and boys are closely following this street play, which spreads messages against child marriage and promotes girls education.

Changing attitudes

Anita joined the theatre group a year and a half ago after her parents planned for a marriage, which she refused.

“They arranged my marriage with my cousin but never asked my opinion,” she recalled. “I was very upset. Finally I told my mother that I wanted to study.”

Some neighbours and especially the community’s young women supported Anita’s struggle. She did not wait for her parents to change their mind, but called her cousin. “I told her that I will not marry her brother,” she said. “If you feel negatively about something you can resist it.”

Being in the theatre group has given Anita the power to voice her opinion.

“Young boys and girls contact me if they have problems in their lives,” says Anita. “Elders should ask what we want in life and support us and not decide on our behalf.”

Crime and punishment

Indian legislation banned child marriage in 1929 and enforced it with the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 making it illegal for girls to marry below age 18 and for boys below 21 years. Child marriage is an offense punishable with a fine up to 100,000, rupees up to two years of imprisonment or both. Few get prosecuted, however.

The Dowry Prohibition Act  makes giving or receiving dowry a crime with a fine up to 15,000 rupees, or the amount of dowry - whichever is higher -  and imprisonment for six months to five years.

In West Bengal, Malda district has the second highest percentage of girls getting married before the legal age. Six out of 10 married women in Malda are child brides and almost a fifth of adolescent girls aged 15-19 years are mothers.

“Last year we prevented 39 child marriages,” said Sutapa Mukhopadahyay, District Social Welfare Officer of Malda.

© UNICEF India/ 2011/Slezic
Anita Puddar, 15, (left) and her mother Kalpana Puddar. Kalpana and her husband arranged to have their daughter married early. After Anita protested her parents decided to allow her to stay in school.

‘My childhood, my right!’

Headed under the campaign slogan ‘My childhood, my right!’, a joint initiative between the Malda district administration and UNICEF promotes the value of girls with a focus on reducing child marriage. The initiative began in 2009 with the aims of raising awareness about child marriage, strengthening adolescent groups and mobilizing communities through folk media and theatre plays. Starting in 30 selected villages, it has gradually spread to the rest of the district.

“The street theatre creates discussion in the community and influences opinions of parents and other community members,” said Paramita Neogi, UNICEF’s child protection officer in West Bengal. “It also gives adolescent girls knowledge and skills to negotiate with their parents and reject offers for marriage.”

Girls’ education and their economic independence are seen as key solutions in Malda. Trafficking is prevalent on the pretext of child marriage when children are in reality sent out for work.

“It is useless to talk about prevention of child marriage if the girls have no alternative options for livelihood and will continue to be seen as parents’ liability and burden,” explained Panchali Saha, a member of the Child Welfare Committee. “Vocational training is offered to adolescents in the district but new challenges emerge when they try market their products. They need new skills.”

‘Now we know better’

Looking back, Anita’s mother, Kalpana Puddar, said she and her husband felt they were doing a good thing.

“We knew the boy and his family. They are rich, and we are not,” she explained. “We were aware that child marriage is illegal, but that is the practice here. But now we know better. All families should take our example.”



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