Girl Power Groups of West Bengal are Opposing and Averting Child Marriages

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Joseph Wesley

One hundred years ago, child marriage was widely acceptable across India. The Reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who strongly campaigned against child marriage, was married in 1781 at the age of nine. Considered as the Father of the Indian Renaissance, this multifaceted social, religious and educational reformer is renowned for his pioneering role in opposing practices like Sati, child marriage, social divisions and advocating education. When the Child Marriage Restraint Act or the Sharda Act was passed in 1929, the minimum age of marriage for girls was fixed at 14 years and boys at 18 years. In 1949, post-Independence, the minimum age was amended to 15 for girls. In 1978, it became 18 for girls and 21 for boys. The 2006 Act kept the same minimum ages but provided clarity on the status of children forced into marriages and avenues for redressal. Yet, child marriages continue across the country.

In India, the expense of a girl child’s marriage is calculated from the day she is born. Girls are considered a burden to the family, and traditionally, the attitude of many societies is to marry them off as early as possible as dowry is lesser when the girl is still young. In this practice, a girl child is reduced to mere calculations, and her life is often beholden to a much senior stranger. These young brides are subjected to sexual violence by their spouses, often resulting in painful and forced sexual intercourse, multiple sexual health issues and pregnancies during puberty. This practice is followed despite the law prohibiting dowry. 

School closures such as those triggered by COVID-19 pushed parents to decide between marrying their girls at a very young age since school is no longer an option. Further, abject poverty has forced many people to marry off their children before the legal age – either owing to societal pressure or in exchange for money. Other factors are also at work. For instance, taking advantage of the restrictions in place because of the pandemic, parents were spared from spending more on big weddings. Since law enforcement agency personnel were deployed in enforcing lockdown measures, their ability to reach out to communities to protect girls from imminent marriage was also hampered. Parents took advantage of these conditions as well.

The growing incidents of child marriage in West Bengal has been alarming ever since the breakout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to acute poverty, it is difficult for students in rural areas to have access to smartphones or laptops. Since these children have no access to education, they are barely aware of their rights. Thus, school closures such as those triggered by COVID-19 pushed parents to decide between marrying their girls at a very young age since school is no longer an option. Further, abject poverty has forced many people to marry off their children before the legal age – either owing to societal pressure or in exchange for money. Other factors are also at work. For instance, taking advantage of the restrictions in place because of the pandemic, parents were spared from spending more on big weddings. Since law enforcement agency personnel were deployed in enforcing lockdown measures, their ability to reach out to communities to protect girls from imminent marriage was also hampered. Parents took advantage of these conditions as well.

UNICEF predicted that COVID-19 could lead to an additional 13 million child marriages over the next decade globally. It is evident with the recent incidents that India is already hewing to the trend. The country already hosts the world’s largest number of child brides – 23 million. That is one-third of the global total. Over 27 per cent of girls in India were married before their 18th birthday and 7 per cent were married before the age of 15. Each year, at least 1.5 million girls under 18 get married in India and nearly 16 per cent of adolescent girls aged 15-19 are currently married.

One way of keeping a check on child marriages during the pandemic is to ensure there is a strong cohort of child protection monitoring systems among the villages. Organising and empowering adolescent girls within the communities is the best possible way to protect girls from forced/early marriages.

Eighteen-year-old Koyal and seventeen-year-old Tanushree, along with their Girl Power Group members, have stopped eighteen child marriages during the pandemic-related lockdowns in West Bengal. Young Koyal is brave and strongly believes that child marriage deters a girl’s holistic development. She believes in education and empowerment, but, in her small village near Siliguri, Koyal is ridiculed and verbally abused for doing the right thing as child marriages are still part of their social custom. Meanwhile, Tanushree had to fight against her marriage which her parents arranged.


Koyal (left), with her mother and sister                    Tanushree (middle) with the GPG

Koyal’s small frame and shy demeanour belie her resolute and unwavering resolve. She has been on the receiving end of so many abuses and threats, but she pressed on. But for what? For her belief in child rights. “Every child has the right to live their childhood. It is a time for them to play and learn. Once they are married, they are burdened with providing food for the family and raising children. I want them to live in freedom,” says Koyal thoughtfully. On the other hand, Tanushree is encouraging her friends to pursue higher studies. “I tell all my friends to study, to learn some skills, to be independent, and then get married. If you get married now, you will have children, and life will be difficult.”

In trafficking-prone West Bengal alone, the movement to protect girls is gaining momentum with 291 Girl Power Groups (GPG). More than 9300 girls are part of the Girl Power Groups in 65 villages. These girls are sensitised on issues related to child rights, trafficking and child marriage. GPG members also attend self-defence classes. In Siliguri, World Vision India is working among 4069 children from the most vulnerable communities; 27 of whom are trafficked survivors. World Vision India was instrumental in setting up Anti-Trafficking Network’s (ATN) at Siliguri in 2011.

Child marriage cases have increased during the lockdown in rural West Bengal. Since these areas are bordering Nepal and Bihar, cross-border/inter-country trafficking is a common occurrence. The pressure to get married is growing even more intense because of yet another twist of the pandemic: It made weddings cheap. Normally, families feel obligated to invite legions of guests, but with the lockdown and lost livelihood scenarios, the social pressure and the cost of the wedding play a vital role in sending off their daughters on the pretext of marriages. 

Recently, Koyal came across a girl who was sold as a child bride. “The girl was just 14 years old, and the family sold her to be a bride of a visually impaired person. The family is the problem in such cases. It is very hard to convince or make the parents understand. In such scenarios, only pressure from the police or local politicians can make them change their minds,” said Koyal.

When these Girl Groups receive news of a child marriage taking place, they immediately inspect the family and make sure the bride and groom are of legal age. They ask the family to produce their birth certificate to verify their age. Girl Power Groups works closely with the Village level Child Protection Units, Police, Integrated Child Development Scheme workers, Accredited Social Health Activist workers, Panchayat members, Sarpanch and local politicians. The Groups monitor the village for child rights violations, including child marriages, and immediately alert the concerned officials.

The impact of the Girl Groups speaks for itself: Since the start of the pandemic, these girls and their all-female crew have helped stop eighteen early forced marriages. In one case, the Group reached the venue just minutes before the marriage was made official. The 14-year-old girl was quietly being dressed and primped up for her wedding. She would have been offered to her husband-to-be, a man she had never met.

Now that States have made marriage registration compulsory, marriage officers and registrars are mandated to intimate the Child Marriage Prohibition Officer about child marriages. Working closely with faith leaders will also help in abolishing child marriages. Better coordination and communication between agencies concerned with the protection of Child Rights and the statutory authorities under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act is, therefore, the need of the hour.

In trafficking-prone West Bengal alone, the movement to protect girls is gaining momentum with 291 Girl Power Groups (GPG). More than 9300 girls are part of the Girl Power Groups in 65 villages. These girls are sensitised on issues related to child rights, trafficking and child marriage. GPG members also attend self-defence classes. In Siliguri, World Vision India is working among 4069 children from the most vulnerable communities; 27 of whom are trafficked survivors. World Vision India was instrumental in setting up Anti-Trafficking Network’s (ATN) at Siliguri in 2011.

At present, 17 NGOs are part of ATN in Siliguri, North Bengal. ATN does advocacy on anti-human trafficking and works with the local police, Child Welfare Committee, and the West Bengal Task Force at the State level. Up till now, 17 children have been rescued from trafficking. The effectiveness of the ATN in stopping trafficking has inspired the other NGOs to set up Anti-Trafficking Network in South Bengal. ATN members are also part of the district-level advisory board on anti-trafficking. 

Despite stringent legal provisions, child marriages still happen due to sheer negligence and lack of awareness. Community alertness, along with strict legal interventions, still remind us that we have a long way to go. Now that States have made marriage registration compulsory, marriage officers and registrars are mandated to intimate the Child Marriage Prohibition Officer about child marriages. Working closely with faith leaders will also help in abolishing child marriages. Better coordination and communication between agencies concerned with the protection of Child Rights and the statutory authorities under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act is, therefore, the need of the hour.

Child marriages can also happen because girls choose to marry early without being forced by their parents. Lack of awareness on how child marriages and teenage pregnancy can adversely impact the health of the mother and child, lack of life skills among adolescent girls, the inability to understand the full magnitude of early marriage and childbirth are some of the factors resulting in many girls running away from home and getting married. 

Despite advances, the progress is slow. The pandemic has taken a toll on communities due to school closures and loss of livelihood. But some girls and women have taken the lead and campaigned for a change in people’s mindsets. Even in this 21st century, we need girls like Tanushree and Koyal to continue the fight, which Raja Ram Mohan Roy initiated back in the 1700s. 
Tanushree

Girls like Koyal and Tanushree inspire other girls from their villages to take up education and be empowered. Koyal has completed her 10+2 and is enrolled in the Auxiliary Nursing Midwifery course from a university in Bangalore. She believes that she would have never reached this far without constant mentoring and encouragement from NGO volunteers. Koyal aspires to continue her studies and be financially independent before getting married. For Tanushree, her work with the Hena Girl Power Group is just the beginning. Though COVID-19 has kept her out of school this year, the experience in the recent months has only galvanised Tanushree’s dreams of becoming a psychologist. 

Ending child marriage by 2030 is a target in the Sustainable Development Goals. The strategy to address this is prevention. Reopening schools, ensuring that all girls return to school, support for most vulnerable girls to resume education and incentivising girls’ education are some of the ways to address this burning issue. Building a vibrant community-based reporting and referral system consisting of adolescent girls, faith actors, civil society organisations, village-level child protection committees, schools, PRI institutions, and Child Helpline, can help identify vulnerable girls and prevent early marriages. 

Despite advances, the progress is slow. The pandemic has taken a toll on communities due to school closures and loss of livelihood. But some girls and women have taken the lead and campaigned for a change in people’s mindsets. Even in this 21st century, we need girls like Tanushree and Koyal to continue the fight, which Raja Ram Mohan Roy initiated back in the 1700s. 

Joseph Wesley is Head – Anti Child Trafficking Programs & Case Manager – Child & Adult Beneficiary Safeguarding at World Vision India.