Bumuar (Bihar), Dec 22 Sixteen-year-old Anjali Kumari's determination to study and fulfill her dream of becoming a school teacher has given her the strength and confidence to stand up against child marriage. She is one of the dozens of girls who are a part of a unique initiative to create awareness against the scourge in rural Bihar.
Anjali, a Class 11 student at the government-run Bumuar High School, looked relaxed while enjoying the mid-December sun along with other girls her age outside her two-room brick house with an asbestos roof and recalled how she refused to marry during the "lagan" (traditional marriage season during the summer). This was months before the Bihar government launched a massive campaign against child marriage on October 2, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.
It was not easy for this daughter of a poor blacksmith.
"I told my mother, when she put pressure on me, that until I complete my Class 12 followed by graduation and fulfil my goal of becoming a teacher, there is no question of marriage.
"After I refused to marry and managed to convince my parents about my desire for higher education, the other villagers also supported me," Anjali told IANS. She is the second among five siblings, including three girls and two boys, all of whom are pursuing their education, except the elder brother, who is a dropout and works in Delhi.
The transformation began when she came in contact with a local organisation, Samagra Seva Kendra (SSK), which is backed by the international NGO Save the Children, that not only creates awareness about child marriage and its adverse impact on health, education and empowerment, but also gives girls an opportunity to express themselves and take a stand.
"Thanks to the training, interaction and exposure provided by SSK, girls of my age become fully aware of the evils of child marriage. I want to teach others like me and help those in neighbouring villages to understand the negative impact of social evils like child marriage," Anjali said.
"We hold special orientation camps for girls with a focus on developing their ability to resist early marriage. It has been proving fruitful," said Anjali, who is now a SSK discussion leader, adding: "This year I have attended a five-day training camp and also attended a conference in Patna."
Her elder cousin, Ashanti Kumari, has led by example as she had married this year after graduating. "Like me, she was also a discussion leader before becoming a trainer at SSK," Anjali said.
Not surprisingly, Save the Children has recognised Anjali and some others of her age as "Child Champions". Her mother Gayatri said that thanks to SSK, she was also aware of the evils of child marriage.
"We are poor people. We wanted to marry her off as my second daughter would be ready for marriage in the next two to three years. If I had one girl, I would have never thought of getting her married before she reached 24 or 25 years. I have three daughters. I regret that I had put pressure on Anjali to marry despite knowing early age marriage is bad. I am proud that she insisted on completing her higher education," Gayatri told IANS.
Gayatri works as a farmhand to augment the family income. Her husband earns a meagre Rs 100 to Rs 150 per day from his small blacksmith's shop.
"We have constructed our (two-room) house and installed a hand pump by taking a loan from a local man. We have neither got (the benefit of the now renamed) Indira Awas (scheme for providing dwellings to the rural poor) nor any help to construct a toilet," Gayatri said.
SSK Project Coordinator Shyamal Naskar said lower dowry also plays an important role in child marriages as parents have to pay a higher dowry if their daughters become adults.
"Earlier, there was no awareness of (the evils of) child marriage in the village. Now people, particularly adolescent girls, are fully aware of it. These days girls are raising their voice against child marriage, refusing to marry and talking about their rights," Naskar told IANS.
According to the recent National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4, 2015-16), 39.1 per cent underaged girls are still being married off in Bihar. Even so, that's an improvement of 30 percentage points over the 2005-06 figure of 69 percent.