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Fighting child marriage in the slums of Moradabad, India

© UNICEF India/2012/Fabian
Nargis and her sister, Shabana, (right) talk about Nargis's experience with child marriage in Moradabad, India.

UNICEF’s flagship report, ‘The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World’, was launched on 28 February, focusing attention on children in urban areas. One billion children live in urban areas, a number that is growing rapidly. Yet disparities within cities reveal that many lack access to schools, health care and sanitation, despite living alongside these services. This story is part of a series highlighting the needs of these children.  

By Patricia Lone

MORADABAD, India, 7 March 2012 – “I wasn’t ready for marriage. No girl should be married at such an early age,” said Nargis.

She was seated with her mother, sister and other women relatives at her uncle’s house in one of the congested slums of Moradabad, a bustling commercial and manufacturing city in Uttar Pradesh.  

They were meeting to discuss the harms caused by child marriage. Now 20 years old with a 3-year-old daughter, Nargis has become a reluctant expert on the subject. She was married at age 16.  

Child marriage and social norms  

Despite progress made in recent years, 47 per cent of Indian women between the ages of 20 and 24 report having been married before age 18.

  “Child marriage is linked to poverty, lack of education and, above all, to the entrenched social norms that push parents to marry their daughters off early,” says Karin Hulshof, UNICEF Representative for India.

“To make sure that no child gets married before the age of 18, we need to keep girls in school and to improve the position of girls and women in society."

© UNICEF India/2012/Fabian
A family friend looks after Madaha Noor, 3, whose mother was forced to marry while still a child, in Moradabad, India.

But in urban slums, like those in Moradabad, too many girls are being left behind, deprived of basic services and opportunities.

Poverty was the precipitating factor in Nargis’s case. She was married shortly after her father died, the loss plunging the struggling family even deeper into poverty. Nargis’ mother, in desperation, accepted the marriage proposal.

As a result of her marriage, Nargis left school. “I wanted to continue studying but I couldn't," she said.

Nargis, like all girls her age, was physically too young for child-bearing. Statistics show that girls between 15 and 19 years old are more likely to experience complications during child birth than older women. Infant and child mortality rates are also higher for these young mothers.

When Nargis became pregnant, her in-laws were adamant that she deliver at home, with the help of a traditional birth attendant, rather than go to a hospital. They refused to seek skilled medical care even after she developed complications in her eighth month of pregnancy.

Only after Nargis spent nearly 10 days in agony did they bow to pressure from Nargis’s mother and sister and take her to a nearby hospital. There, she delivered her daughter, Madiha Noor, by caesarean section.

© UNICEF India/2012/Fabian
A community animator speaks to children and women about the harms of child marriage and other issues in Moradabad, India.

Helping others

Three years later, Nargis is determined to help other girls avoid the pain, fear, isolation and health risks she faced.

She is involved in a women’s group in her community, influenced both by her own experiences and by her sister, Shabana, who is a community animator working with the NGO Child Survival India (CSI).

With support from UNICEF and funding from the IKEA Foundation, CSI is one of five partners implementing the Child Rights Protection Project in Moradabad. The project is reaching children and families in 101 slums of Moradabad with life-changing information about children’s rights and care.

Animators like Shabana work with groups of women and adolescents on what they call the ’10-Point Agenda.’ The agenda covers topics such as the importance of birth registration, immunization, safe delivery and breastfeeding, nutritional supplementation, hygiene, primary education, and ending child marriage.

Nargis herself follows the 10-Point Agenda, making sure her daughter is immunized, well-nourished and healthy.

And Nargis has been empowered to advocate for herself and her family. She has convinced her husband that they should have a second child only when Madiha is 5 or 6 years old. This, she hopes, will ensure that her daughter has the best possible care before they have another child. She has also convinced her husband and in-laws that Madiha should continue her education for as long as she wants to.

“I won’t allow my daughter to walk the same path I did,” she said.



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