Anwara Khatun, extreme right, stands with two more school girls at the launch of the movement against child marriage at Kolkata
Children’s voices against child marriage are helping them to reclaim their rights and rebuild their futures
By Sohini Roychowdhury
KOLKATA, West Bengal India, 3 March 2010 — In a large, well-lit room decorated with bright colored posters and balloons the noisy voices of girls and boys swell not allowing a pinprick of silence.
Fifteen-year-old Anwara Khatun is among them exuding a quiet defiance. She is among the more than 200 children who have gathered together from across West Bengal to draw up an action plan against child marriage for parents, teachers and the community.
Although Anwara’s primary school results were among the best in her village in the Sunderban area, she knew that her family’s poverty would prevent her from ever going to secondary school.
“I wept for many days. Like many girls from my village I was sent to the city to work as a maidservant. For my mother it meant having to feed one less mouth in our family of six,” says Anwara.
“Those were my darkest days. My employers often beat and bruised me. I was given very little to eat and made to work punishing hours. I had become so weak that I fainted frequently,” she adds.
It was at this point that a NGO, Dhagagia Social Welfare Society, visited Anwara’s village to track missing girls. They committed to supporting Anwara’s education and convinced her mother to fetch her from the city.
“I was so happy to be back home. I began attending a bridge school to help me reintegrate into the formal school system,” says Anwara.
“But my happiness was short lived. An uncle conspired with my family and arranged my marriage to a much-older local boy. I was aghast what I found out. I contacted the NGO and together with their children’s group I mustered enough courage to say no to my marriage and remain in school,” she says.
“It wasn’t easy. My mother stopped speaking to me. But I remained defiant. I demanded for my basic rights to a healthy and secure future. Is that too much to expect?” she asks.
“The sad and staggering fact is that every second girl is married in childhood in West Bengal. Of all teenage girls 15-19 years in the state, one-third are mothers,” says Lori Calvo, UNICEF Chief of Field Office, West Bengal.
“The simple bleakness of this scenario powerfully highlights the impacts on girls’ poverty, gender discrimination and disease. Girls like Anwara, by staying in school and saying no to under-age marriage, are creating a silent revolution, one child at a time.”
First call to action to strengthen child rights
With a view to improving child rights in the state, the Government of West Bengal together with UNICEF launched a movement against child marriage called “Amar Saishab, Amar Adhikar” (My Childhood, My Right).
The event was significant because for the first time children across the state gathered to share their views on child marriage and release a manifesto as a first call to action by parents, teachers and the community.
For 18 year-old Rinky Das, a peer supporter with the NGO Sanlaap, it’s been a life less ordinary. “Imagine if you have nothing. Imagine you have to struggle every day in poverty.
Imagine if you don’t have the luxury to think about a life purpose other than how to stay alive. That’s what I faced when growing up in the not-so-respectable red light area in Kolkata known for its commercial sex work.
But Sanlaap changed my life,” says Rinky. “Most of the vulnerable children in my area, including me, spent our evenings at the dropping center facility started by Sanlaap. Here we received education, food and for the first time we learnt even children have rights. Most importantly we regained our dignity.
When I grew older I volunteered with the youth mentoring programme. Today I work with young people and their parents in my community to raise awareness on child rights, including campaigning against child marriage.”
UNICEF in action
UNICEF efforts to prevent child marriage in West Bengal have included supporting a pilot intervention in Malda district which has the highest number of child marriages in the state.
By mobilizing parents and children against child marriage, implementing a village level monitoring system to track child marriages, building capacity of teachers, anaganwadi workers and village committee members on the issue and developing an evidence-based documentation on norms and values around child marriage is expected to transform 30 villages in Malda district as child-marriage free.