16-year-old Asu Kanwar, inside her home. Her marriage to a 40-year-old man was decided two years ago by her father. With the help of her mother and local support groups, the marriage was stopped.
By Chris Niles
RAJASTHAN, India, 22 January 2010 – When Asu Kawar was 13-years-old, her community and family decided that she should be married to a man more than twice her age.
“At the age of fourteen, girls usually get married in the villages,” said Jedhu Singh, Asu’s uncle.
Even though it’s illegal, child marriage is common in rural areas of India such as Rajasthan, where the social and economic pressures to defy the law are immense. More than fifty per cent of girls are married by age 18.
‘It was a big problem’
When Asu, with the support of her mother, refused to marry, her community was extremely angry. At one point several hundred villages surrounded her home demanding that she obey their wishes.
“They were threatening to kidnap her. It was a big problem,” Mr. Singh said.
But Asu had someone on her side. Durga, a village health care worker assured Asu that she was not alone and that her decision to refuse early marriage was also backed by the government and the police. It’s Durga’s job to speak to all of those involved in planning a child marriage.
“You cannot stop child marriage alone. It needs involvement at all levels. I first go and convince the family, then the neighbours, then the village elders and leaders. If it still doesn’t stop, then I go to the government officials. I keep raising the level if need be,” Durga said.
Women like Durga are the lynchpin of a partnership between UNICEF and the European Commission to give strength to families who decide not to marry their daughters before they are 18. The programme helps the people of Rajasthan to realize that their best hope for a prosperous economic and social future depends on making decisions for their girls that will ultimately benefit everybody in the community.
“We show to Indian authorities that, when discussing these issues, we are not here to lecture but to support them in finding solutions to these problems,” said European Commission Representative to India, Daniele Smadja.
To help people realize that ending harmful social practices is beneficial not just for the girls but for everyone, health workers hold regular community meetings where they discuss issues such as domestic violence and girls’ education. The meetings help villagers find ways that they all can agree upon to end harmful social practices.
Asu and her family are holding firm. Although she has received a bravery award from the President of India, the family is still feeling pressure from their neighbours.
“My community is angry with me. They accuse me of violating the norms of the community. They accuse me of going outside the community and speaking to the government,” said Asu’s father, Bhom Singh.
UNICEF and the European Commission are committed to supporting girls like Asu, as well as to paving the way for a permanent, widespread change in social attitude. This includes providing an alternative to marriage by continuing girls’ education and building skills needed to earn an income.
“It’s still a struggle to get the caste to accept girls who refuse marriage. Only when Asu has skills and becomes an empowered woman is my work over. My work is just beginning,” said the Ministry of Women and Child Development Spokesperson, Indu Chopra.