She stood her ground. Many cannot

Every day, as the dawn breaks at Mai, a small village perched at a remote corner of the district of Munger in Bihar, one can find this young girl getting up from bed and hurriedly preparing to go to college, which is a long way from home. The broad smile on her face and a pair of sparkling eyes often betray the tremendous strength she has; and after a few minutes, when she is found waiting nervously for the morning bus at the village chawk, one hardly notices the streak of courage that helped her go against her parents and the whole society she belongs to.

Like many other teenage girls in the village, Sarika’s battle started from home. But unlike many of her friends, she was not ready to accept the raw deal that life had to offer.

One of the bright students in the ninth standard in the local Shivnagar high school, Sarika was extremely interested in continuing her education to the college level and become an earning member to support her family. Her parents though, thought otherwise. They were already in the lookout for a groom for this child and the first step they took was to stop her from going to school.

As soon as little Sarika came to know of her wedding, she alerted her friends in the ‘Munna Munni Manch’ (Children’s Group in her village, an intervention by CRY supported project Disha Vihar) and the Women’s Group. The parents, resorting to desperate measures, stopped her from leaving the house. She had to stop going to school, was trapped in her own home, and could not even meet her friends. Meanwhile, the family of the groom met Sarika’s parents and her mother finalized her marriage. In order to make sure that there would be no obstacles in the way, the groom agreed to not take any dowry.

But there did remain one obstacle – Sarika herself. She was not to be convinced, and held her ground. This enabled the staff of Disha Vihar, the community, the children’s group and the women’s group to go back to Sarika’s parents and sensitize them against child marriage. While they spoke to the girl’s family about the ill effects of child marriage on the child’s life, they also explained the vulnerabilities that it would expose their daughter 00to; they informed the groom’s family that what they were doing is illegal.

Finally, the job was done. The groom’s family called off the marriage. Today, Sarika is back to doing what she likes to do best – studying. After completing her secondary and higher secondary examinations, she has applied for Bachelor of Arts in the colleges of Munger, apart from pursuing a basic computer course.

But, there is a flip side of the story as well. Not all of her friends were as strong as she was, nor did they get enough support from outside to stand against their parents’ will. Two of her elder sisters, Sarika relates, were married off before they reached 18. Though the recent data shows an overall decline in the rate of marriage among young girls across India, Bihar continues to have a very high percentage of marriage before reaching the legally prescribed age of 18 years. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), the state accounts for 69% of child marriages, where the girls are married before they reach 18 years.

As per District Level Household Survey data (DLHS-3), the status of the child marriage in the intervention areas of CRY-supported projects, Jamui has the highest percentage of girls married under the age of 18 years, closely followed by Banka, Nawada, West Champaran and Samastipur districts. Data from three consecutive household surveys across India showed that the rate of child marriage among girls under age 15 is declining at more than twice the rate than among girls under 18 years of age. The decline for girls under 15 years of age is 30% as compared to 13% reduction for girls under the age of 18. According to DLHS data, around 48% of married women in the 20-24 year age group got married before 18 in rural areas, compared with 29% in urban areas.

Over the last fifteen years, the incidence of child marriage in our India has declined just by 11%, which means slower than 1% every year. While this can be interpreted as a sign of progress, it is still not sufficient to guarantee children their full rights in terms of education, sexual and reproductive health and the right to self determination.

We all know that child marriage takes place in the midst of a complex social arrangement involving multiple stakeholders. It takes place in the background of various age old socio-cultural, religious practices and beliefs. In the name of ‘societal pressure’ we are today sacrificing millions of girl children into a state where they can no longer enjoy their rights as children. In this ‘socially acceptable’ arrangement, children, especially young girls are loaded with responsibilities of an adult, a role they are ill equipped to play mentally, physically and emotionally. In India, social norms and beliefs take precedence over any legal binding, which is clearly evident through the minuscule number of cases which gets registered across the country. This very slow scale of reduction of child marriage shows that the legislation which was brought in by the state along with various initiatives by other agencies and civil society has not been fully effective in bringing about desired outcome in changing the concrete attitudes and norms.

We at CRY do believe that there is an urgent need to relook issues and legal provisions under child marriage in a much holistic way by strengthening integration between stricter implementation of Child Marriage Prohibition Act, 2006 and The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO), 2012 and Immoral Traffic Prevention Act. The situation also requires paying attention to work on the behavior and attitudes of the communities in order to commit action against preventing child marriage. The occurrence of Child Marriage is directly linked to implementation of child’s right to Education. It is very likely that if the child is out of school, she/he would be married off quickly. Extending the scope of RTE Act 2009, and extending it till the age of 18 years would prove to be boon for a large percentage of adolescent girls between the age of 14-18 years. At an implementation level, it is also extremely important to strengthening registration of births and marriages to establish the age of the child.
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