By Azera Parveen Rahman
KURNOOL, India, 12 September 2013 - Savitri has always been the fighter in her family, crying, if necessary, to get her way through. This is how she convinced her parents to enroll her in a school—the only one among seven siblings who managed to do that.
But at the age of 14 when her parents started looking for an alliance for her marriage, Savitri realised she couldn’t fight this battle alone, and sought the help of a group of adolescent girls of her village. This brave teenager now fights for the rights of other children and strongly advocates against child marriage.
Unlike many other girls in her village in the Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh who are shy of talking to strangers, Savitri is confident about voicing her opinion.
“I did not want to get married so young. I had seen my cousin have a child marriage and then soon becoming pregnant. She had a very difficult pregnancy that put her life at risk. I did not want that.I was just in class 8 and wanted to study more,” she recalls. .
Savitri’s parents, both agricultural labourers, however, had their own reasons to get their daughter married so early. “The reasons were mostly economic. We have two daughters, and getting them married while we could still work and earn a dowry for them was our only hope,” her mother, Anjayamma says. “Plus, we were worried about Savitri’s safety. Getting her married off would mean she will be somebody’s wife and no other man could cast an eye on her”.
The girls’ group of Upparlapalli, called Mother Teresa Balika Sangha, however, thought otherwise when Savitri share her parents’ decision. The Balika Sanghas constitute a very important piece in the protective scheme developed in Karnatka by the State Government and UNICEF.
In these groups adolescent girls discuss issues such as child marriage, child abuse and child labour, among others, and talk about possible solutions. This ultimately empower them with knowledge and build their self confidence to fight discrimination.
Taking the case in their hands, Savitri’s Balika Sangha decided to speak to her parents directly. They first informed the headmaster of the school about the issue, and then went to her home.
“Some of the girls of the group counselled my parents against getting me married. They told them about the ill effects of child marriage, how it would affect my health, , as well as the penal provisions of child marriage. But they did not pay heed. My mother said that education would do me no good—in any case none of my other siblings had gone to school—and marriage is the ultimate aim of a girl’s life,” Savitri explains.
The girls however did not give up. They approached the Child Rights Protection Committee—a group of local leaders which includes the village head, the Anganwadi worker and self-help group members—who in turn informed the District Magistrate (DM) about the issue. The DM then spoke to the parents and managed to convince them to drop their plans of marrying off their daughter at such a tender age.
Today, at the age of 17, Savitri has completed her intermediary studies, or class 12, and is planning to get enrolled in college for higher studies.
“I want to become a nurse, or a doctor,” she says with a renewed hope. “My father and brother drink (alcohol), and keep falling ill. This (alcoholism) is a big problem in my village. Once I am in the medical field, I will take care of the family’s health and convince the entire village to give up drinking because it is bad for health,” she adds.
Savitri credits a big part of her confidence to the Balika Sangha. “I have been a part of the Balika Sangha since 2009, when it was formed. After the group rescued me, there has been no other case of child marriage in our village. We discuss these issues regularly in our bimonthly meetings, and also think of solutions to each other’s problems. I especially feel strongly about girl child education and advocate against child marriage,” the young girl says.
“Unlike earlier, when walking past a group of men on the road would make us get meek—because they would generally tease us or pass comments—now, with each other’s support, we have the courage to walk with confidence and retaliate, if necessary,” she adds with a smile.