By Sreenath Cheruvari
20 April 2006: Thirteen year old Sundari Khatun is a cheerful young girl who loves listening to the latest Hindi film songs and plays ‘leap frog’ and ‘throw ball’ with her friends. Studying in Grade IV of Kashminagar NCLP school of Murshidabad in the state of West Bengal, she wants to pursue her studies and become a teacher. Life was going smoothly for Sundari till the day her parents suddenly decided to get her married. But thanks to the efforts of the field mobilisers from the ‘Shishu Mitra’ Project, (Child Friendly) a joint initiative of UNICEF and The Government of West Bengal for the promotion of universal elementary education and prevention of child labour, Sundari can still go to school, play with her friends and lead a fairly happy life like any other child her age.
If not for the timely intervention of the ‘Sishu Mitra’ project, thirteen year old Sundari would have been living as the wife of a man double her age, her face shielded in a veil, carrying out household chores and forced to take up adult roles.If not for the timely intervention of the ‘Sishu Mitra’ project, Sundari would have been living as the wife of a man double her age, her face shielded in a veil, carrying out household chores and forced to take up adult roles. If everything went as planned, she would have even become a mother by the age of fifteen! Young Sundari’s marriage had already been fixed and preparations were underway when the field mobilisers working under the Shishu Mitra project got to know about the child marriage that was going to happen in the village. They immediately went to Sundari’s house and confronted Ishak Sheikh, Sundari’s father who works as a part time agricultural labourer in the neighbouring fields.
The field mobilisers tried to convince Sundari’s father of the legal implications as well as the health complications and psychological damage he would be inflicting on his young daughter by getting her married. Ishak Sheikh was adamant stating that the groom was well settled and did not even demand a dowry. ‘There is no way I can back out of this good proposal’ was his strong message.
The field mobilisers immediately called for a mothers’ meeting in the village wherein young Sundari was also sensitized about the problems of entering into matrimony at such a young age. A convinced Sundari went home and pleaded with her parents to call off the marriage. The field mobilisers also visited her home with members of the local village committee and convinced her father to put a stop to this impending marriage
The Sishu Mitra Project, conceived by the District Administration and UNICEF, is being implemented in collaboration with Department of Women &Child Welfare, Education, Health and Social Welfare in seven administrative blocks of Jangipur subdivision of Murshidabad district. The Project has been instrumental in reaching out to hundreds of girls like Sundari apart from generating awareness on child trafficking and early marriage of girls. The project also plays a major role in increasing enrolment of children in schools, increasing awareness in the blocks about routine immunization, encouraging institutional delivery and raising general awareness with regard to education and health activities
Murshidabad, which is one of the most backward districts of the state of West Bengal, borders Bangladesh and is characterized by a gamut of problems ranging from child trafficking to low literacy levels. The Jangipur sub division where the project is underway is famous for the availability of cheap labour and a large chunk of its population is involved in the bidi industry wherein tobacco leaves are rolled and used for smoking.
About 34 field mobilisers are active in these six blocks with a child population of approximately 250,358, imparting messages and keeping a watch on child marriages and instances of child trafficking.
Almost every household in this subdivision is involved in Bidi rolling which has become a household industry. Children help their mothers in rolling the bidis which adds to the household income. Parents are therefore reluctant to send these children to schools. In fact they look upon it as an economically productive activity. It is said that the worth of a girl is evaluated according to the number of bidis she can bind. ‘The more she binds, the better husband she gets’.
In fact the entire thrust of the Sishu Mitra project is aimed at awareness generation and improving the standard of living of the local population through social mobilization and empowerment activities. About 34 field mobilisers are active in these six blocks with a child population of approximately 250,358, imparting messages and keeping a watch on child marriages and instances of child trafficking. The social mobilisers hold regular meetings with the village committees and sensitise them on various development related issues ranging from health to education including early marriages.
Mr. Rudolf Schwenk, State Representative of the UNICEF office in West Bengal, explains that the norm of ‘younger the girl, lesser the dowry’ has been a major factor that has encouraged child marriages in these areas. He points out that economic conditions are also responsible for this situation and explains that strategic interventions to prevent early marriages have to address these issues if results have to be achieved.
Today, as a result of the awareness drive under the Sishu Mitra Project, a number of girls like Sundari Khatun have got a new lease of life from being married off early. These girls can now attend school, play with their friends and enjoy the joys of childhood.