Three-year-old Madaha Noor with her mother Nargis (20) in their home in Moradabad district in northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Because of the economically weak condition of of the family, Nargis was married off at the age of 16.
By Patricia Lone
MORADABAD, India, 9 Feb 2012. “I wasn’t ready for marriage. No girl should be married at such an early age. I won’t allow my daughter to walk the same path I did.”
Nargis spoke without hesitation and with great feeling when we met her in her uncle’s house in one of the congested slum areas of Moradabad. It was late afternoon and a pall of smoke, soot, engine exhaust and the odours of molten metal and cooking hung in the air.
Moradabad is a bustling commercial and manufacturing city in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh famous for its hand-worked brassware, and many small metal workshops are interspersed among the houses in the slums.
Nargis was seated with her mother, sister and other women relatives to speak about the issue of child marriage, on which she is a reluctant expert. Now a serious young woman of 20 with a three-year-old daughter, like so many girls in India, Nargis was married as a child, at the age of 16. Despite progress in recent years, 43 per cent of women between the ages of 20 and 24 in India, like Nargis, are married before the age of 18.
“Child marriage is linked to poverty, lack of education and above all to the entrenched social norms that push parents to marry their daughters early,” says Karin Hulshof, UNICEF Representative for India. “To make sure that no child gets married before the age of 18, we need to keep girls in school and to improve the position of girls and women in society."
Poverty was the precipitating factor in Nargis’s case. She was married shortly after her father died, the loss plunging the struggling family even deeper into poverty. Nargis’s mother in desperation accepted the marriage proposal.
As a result of her marriage, Nargis left school. “I wanted to continue studying but I couldn't." Nargis had completed the ninth grade at the time of her marriage.
Now, three years later, Nargis is determined to help other girls avoid the pain, fear, isolation and physical problems that befell her from marrying at such a young age.
“I knew nothing,” she explained, her voice firm, although it occasionally faltered from the strength of her feelings.
“I used to break down and cry. I was lonely and very scared. I couldn’t manage the demands and household responsibilities. It was extremely difficult adjusting and living up to the expectations of my husband and in-laws.
Nargis, like all girls her age, was physically too young for child-bearing. Statistics show that girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are more likely to experience complications during child birth than older women. New-born, infant and child mortality rates in India are also higher among the children of mothers aged 15 to 19 than for mothers over 20 years old.
When Nargis became pregnant, her in-laws, very conservative and uneducated, were adamant that she should deliver at home with the help of a traditional birth attendant. They refused to seek skilled medical care for the 17-year old even when she developed complications in her eighth month of pregnancy. Finally, after nearly 10 days of agony for Nargis, the in-laws bowed to the pressure and pleas of Nargis’s mother and sister and took her to the hospital.
She was taken to a Government hospital located near her home and she eventually safely delivered her daughter, Madiha Noor, at the hospital through a caesarean section.
Nargis has translated her sorrow and anger about the loss of her childhood into community activism. She is now involved in a women’s group in her community, influenced both by her own experience and by her sister Shabana, who is a community animator working with a local NGO, Child Survival India (CSI).
Through support from UNICEF with funding from IKEA Foundation, CSI is one of five implementing partners in the Child Rights Protection Project in Moradabad, which reaches women and families in 101 slum neighbourhoods in Moradabad with life changing information and a plan of action to care for their children.
Trained animators like Shabana work with groups of women and adolescents on what they call the “10-Point Agenda for Children.” The agenda covers topics such as the importance of birth registration, immunization, safe delivery and breastfeeding, nutritional supplementation, hygiene, primary education and ending child marriage.
Nargis strongly advocates in her community against child marriage. “I wouldn’t want anyone to face the problems I have,” she says.
She also is determined to be able to care well for her children and Nargis follows the 10-Point Agenda, ensuring that her daughter is immunized and paying attention to her health and nutrition.
Unlike so many families in the urban slums, with as many as 8 or 9 children, Nargis wants to have only two children, and has convinced her husband that they should have a second child only when Madiha is five or six years old as Nargis wants her daughter to have the best possible foundation of care before having another child. She has also convinced her husband and in-laws that Madiha should continue her education as long as she wants to.
When asked what dream she has, Nargis replied that she wants her daughter to be a doctor.
After a moment, she adds: “I had always wanted to be a doctor myself. Now I would like that dream to come true for my daughter.”