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Adolescent clubs empower young girls to resist early marriage in India

© UNICEF India/2010/Purshottam
Rumi Hemrom, 13, is a member of the Adolescent Girls' Clubs Against Child Marriage in Assam, India, whose members convince families to not marry off their daughters until they attain the legal age of marriage.

‘The State of the World’s Children 2011 – Adolescence: An Age of Opportunity,’ UNICEF’s flagship report, focuses on the development and rights of more than a billion children aged 10 to 19 worldwide. This series of stories, essays and multimedia features seeks to accelerate and elevate adolescents’ fight against poverty, inequality and gender discrimination.

By Angela Walker

DIBRUGARH, India, 13 April 2011 – Rumi Hemrom, 13, and her friend, Seema, 14, attend the same adolescent girls’ club in their local village. The result is a bond that’s changed the course of Seema’s life.

Upon hearing that Seema’s parents were arranging an early marriage, Rumi and other members of the club visited her parents and grandmother repeatedly. They convinced them to wait until Seema is both physically and emotionally ready for marriage.

“Now it’s not our time to get married,” explains Rumi, a born leader who wears a crisp school uniform and keeps her hair in a neat ponytail. “We’ll not get to play. We’ll not get to go to school.”

‘Thinking for themselves’

Seema’s grandmother, Kokila Sahu, was originally opposed to the idea of letting her granddaughter continue her education, but she soon came around.

“Before, such things were not discussed at all,” she says. “We now know that difficulties can arise, like girls getting married at an early age may have problems giving birth.”

Adolescent girls’ clubs are on the rise in India. In 2007, UNICEF supported their establishment in 50 villages and 30 tea gardens – estate communities that pick tea – in the Dibrugarh District of Assam, north-eastern India. There are now clubs in 380 villages and 80 tea gardens, with more than 16,000 girls registered.

© UNICEF India/2010/Purshottam
Rumi Hemrom and other members of the Adolescent Girls' Clubs Rally Against Child Marriage persuaded the parents and grandmother of Seema, 14, not to force her into early marriage.

“The clubs have added much colour to the girls’ lives and given them an identity within the community,” says Josephine Barla, a child-protection project coordinator with the Dibrugarh District Rural Development Agency, which oversees the girls’ clubs. “They have started thinking for themselves. Change is slow, but it’s very powerful for them.”

UNICEF Assam Child Protection Officer Aniruddha Kulkarni agrees, noting that the clubs are finally giving girls a forum in which to explore their rights. “They have their own space, which they never had before, to talk to each other, play with each other and discuss issues that they otherwise would never have discussed,” he says.

Anti-discrimination laws

Even though child marriage is illegal in India, the practice of marrying children at a young age continues to be accepted by large sections of Indian society. Nearly half of all young women marry before the legal age of 18, and the situation is even more acute in rural areas.

Child marriage perpetuates power imbalances between men and women, both in and outside the home. It limits girls’ choices about their own sexual and reproductive health, isolates them from familiar social networks and restricts their ability to make decisions about their own lives.

A girl’s education is also often seen as a waste of valuable resources, with families focusing on educating boys.

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, passed by the Indian Parliament in 2009, is a landmark step in keeping girls in school and out of child marriage. For the first time in India’s history, children will be guaranteed their right to quality elementary education by the state, with the help of families and communities.

The legislation includes specific provisions for disadvantaged groups, such as child labourers, migrant children, children with special needs or those who have a “disadvantage owing to social, cultural economical, geographical, linguistic, gender or such other factor.”

Seeds of progress

The adolescent girls’ clubs are already succeeding in keeping girls in school. Girls are learning that marrying before they are ready puts them at a higher risk of early childbearing, domestic violence and abuse, and economic dependence.

Early marriage can lead to a vicious cycle of gender discrimination, illiteracy and high infant and maternal mortality rates. It’s a message that is getting across to one group of girls at a time, starting with girls like Rumi and Seema.

“It’s been a very slow process,” says Mr. Kulkarni. “It’s like a seed – you have to water it for it to become a plant. It’s not going to happen overnight.”



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