Aksha Bibi, village health worker and a member of women’s self help group prevented her own daughter’s child marriage. She wants to see her daughter grow up, study and become a teacher and economically independent.
By Taru Tuohiniemi
MALDA, India, 7 February 2012 – Aksha Bibi, a village health worker and a member of women’s self help group, knows how a child marriage can disrupt a girl’s life and have harmful consequences to her health and education. She prevented her own daughter’s child marriage few years ago. She says she will stand by her until she, an aspiring teacher, wants to get married.
“I get angry when I get marriage proposals for my 18-year-old daughter. She wants to study and her body is not ready for pregnancy yet. My daughter says she will be economically independent and take care of me,” says Aksha Bibi.
The idea of economic independence is what brought the women of Hosnabad Diyara village together. Women in this self help group deposit their individual savings into the group’s joint bank account every month and can access microfinance loans from the bank at a lower interest rate. These loans the women invest in their agricultural, crafting or forestry activities for higher income.
“Now that we are economically independent, we are important, and people listen to us,” tells Serima Begum, 35, the founder and leader of the women’s self help group. “When I started the group people did not like me. Women are not supposed to work but stay at home. But my husband supported me all the way.”
Gradually more women joined, the group grew and more groups were established. Starting from five self help groups the Gram Panchayat or village’s local level self-government now has 188 groups. The women soon noticed that not only do they have access to microloans but also to decision making regarding issues affecting their own and their children’s lives.
Serima Begum, Women’s Self Help Group founder and leader, increased the number of self help groups from five to 188 in her Gram Panchayat. She has been trained by UNICEF and the Malda district joint initiative on child marriage issues.
Indian legislation banned child marriage in 1929 and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 enforced it prohibiting marriage below 18 for girls and 21 for boys. Child marriage is an offence punishable with fine up to Rs 0.1 million, or up to two years of imprisonment, or both. However, few are ever prosecuted.
The Dowry Prohibition Act (1961) makes giving or receiving dowry a crime with fine up to Rs 15 000, or up to six months of imprisonment, or the amount of dowry – whichever is higher and imprisonment up to 5 years.
In Malda six out of ten married women were child brides and almost a fifth of adolescent girls aged 15-19 years are mothers. To prevent child marriages the Malda district administration and UNICEF have been working together since 2009. The joint venture includes raising awareness, strengthening adolescent groups, promoting education and mobilizing communities through folk media and theatre plays.
“If we want to eradicate child marriage we need community involvement. Communities need to protect daughters,” says Lori Calvo, UNICEF’s Chief of Field Office in West Bengal. “Only when the communities realize the importance of education of their girls and the economic benefits that result, we can end the practise.”
UNICEF has trained women’s self-help groups on child marriage, and provided the groups with information on how to respond to child right violations.
“After the training I felt good, and I realised the child marriage cases in my village,” Serima Begum says.
Her group just recently prevented the marriage of a 16-year-old girl. “The girl contacted me and as a group we spoke with her parents. She’s now in class 10 and receives financial support from the district’s child protection society to continue her studies.”
Today, 250 gram panchayat members have been oriented on child marriage issues, especially its legal aspect and implications. Serima lists the changes she has witnessed in her community.
“Now more people know what are the legal consequences of child marriage, women are financially more independent, girls’ school attendance has increased and there are no child marriages in any of the families of the self help groups,” she says. “This is the change I can see with my own.