Patna, 20 April 2006: Girls are generally married off early in the Indian state of Bihar. Most of them are still children, unprepared to bear either the burden of marital responsibility or childbearing. Early marriages, early childbearing, prematurely born underweight infants and complications during pregnancy and childbirth are not uncommon. Most of the girls who are married off early seldom get an education.
Support for girls’ education is one of the major areas of UNICEF’s work in Bihar. The autobiographical essays below depict the plight of girls who did not get an education as children, but got an opportunity to study when Nari Gunjan, one of UNICEF’s partners in education, led by Sister Sudha Varghese, winner of the Padmashri medal, started a learning centre in their village. These girls can now read and write but have lost many precious years. Will they be the skilled workers of tomorrow in a world of growing opportunities, or will they be only wives and mothers?
Rinku Kumari, Ramji Chak, Bata
My name is Rinku Kumari. My father is Jitan Manjhi. We are four sisters and my mother passed away when I was 12 years old. Since then, my father has taken care of us. I was keen to study right from my childhood but there was no opportunity. It was only when a Nari Gunjan centre opened in my village that I joined it with the permission of my father. After the day’s work I attended the centre and, apart from studies, I learnt useful skills.
Though my mother-in-law allowed me to attend classes at the centre, my husband stopped me from going there. He threatened to “break my legs” if I disobeyed him.
My time at the centre was cut short when my father got me married at the age of 15 with a boy from a neighbouring village. My husband’s behaviour toward me was very bad. Everyday, he would return from work, drink heavily and beat me up. There was a Nari Gunjan centre near my married home too. Though my mother-in-law allowed me to attend classes at the centre, my husband stopped me from going there. He threatened to “break my legs” if I disobeyed him. I returned to my father’s house and told him about my husband’s brutal treatment. Thankfully, he did not let me go back to my husband’s house after that. Now I go to the Nari Gunjan centre in my village everyday. I pray that all parents should give a proper education to their daughters and never marry them off at a young age.
Buna Devi, Kurkuri
My name is Buna Devi. I was born to extremely poor parents. I was barely a teenager when I was married off to Baijnath Manjhi of village Kurkuri in Phulwarisharif area of Patna district. I was thirteen then. I started living with my husband and parents-in-law.
When I went to the Centre, my neighbours would comment, “Look at this old woman with two children. She is going to study now, at this age!” I never replied to them but silently pursued my goal. I had my first child almost a year after my marriage. I am eighteen now, and my eldest child – a boy – is five. I have another child who is three years old. It never crossed my parents’ minds that I needed an education. They thought that education was not for the poor. However, when Nari Gunjan opened a centre in my village and girls and women below 21 were given an opportunity to study, I got myself enrolled. It was quite difficult for me initially. When I went to the Centre, my neighbours would comment, “Look at this old woman with two children. She is going to study now, at this age!” I never replied to them but silently pursued my goal.
What bothered me most was that my mother-in-law too did not support me. She refused to take care of my children while I was away. It was my elder son who helped me. He started taking care of his younger brother and played outside the Centre while I studied. My younger son troubled me a lot at the Centre but I never gave up my studies. After spending a few hours at the centre, I also had to work in paddy fields, or thrush crops to supplement the family income. It was a hard life, but I never gave up my determination to become literate.
There were many other skills I learnt at the Centre, apart from studies. For example, I learnt about health and hygiene, cleanliness, sanitation, child-rearing, stitching and cutting. I also learnt about the position of women and girls in society; ills like child labour and the consequences of child marriage. I also learnt about other people at the Centre who had faced difficulties but had overcome them.
I had never imagined that some day I would be a literate person. But I did become one, and I am so proud that I cannot talk about my sense of achievement in words. I want to convey to the Manjhi family that they should all become literate and also make their children capable and literate. I support my children in every way so that they can become educated and good human beings. I feel that the jewelry women wear is superficial. Our real adornment is education.
Phulwanti Kumari, Centre Babhanpura
I always wanted to study but my mother discouraged me and said, “What will you do with an education? After all you have to take care of your home and family and work in the fields?”
I tried to convince her that I would study after finishing my day’s work but she never listened. Instead she would ask me to take care of my younger brothers and sisters.
Now, my parents-in-law have sent for me, which means that I have to drop out of the Centre. I cannot describe how disillusioned I am.
Then one day a Nari Gunjan centre opened in my village and an instructress, Madhuri didi (elder sister) came to my house. She convinced my mother about the benefits of literacy and I was allowed to join the centre. Sometimes, I also walked to the school situated on the outskirts of the village, but boys would tease me on the way. One day, my mother decided to get me married, and within no time I was married. Fortunately, I was not sent to my husband’s home immediately and could continue my studies at the Nari Gunjan centre.
Now, my parents-in-law have sent for me, which means that I have to drop out of the Centre. I cannot describe how disillusioned I am. If I had been educated I would have become a doctor or a teacher. There is some consolation in that I can write my name and address. I can also write an essay about a cow, I know opposites, names of India’s and the state capitals. I also know about my state, names of the months, understand the difference between living and non-living things, about the rotation and revolution of earth, full moon and darkness. I have also been to Patna where I saw Gandhi Setu, Golghar, Zoo, the ruins at Kumhrar. I want to earn a living using skills rather than labour. I hope someday I can do that.