Child marriage is still a widely prevalent practice in West Bengal. Despite the fact that in the state of West Bengal had social reformers who led the country in thinking about women empowerment, this social evil is robbing the girls in the State of their right to live a life of dignity and freedom.
The current situation:
Every second girl in the high prevalence child marriage districts of West Bengal were married off before they reach 18, the legal age for girls to get wedded, a UNICEF reported a couple of years back, with Murshidabad (61.04 per cent), Birbhum (58.03 per cent), Malda (56.07 per cent) and Purulia (54.03 per cent) being the worst off districts.
A TOI report of September 25th, 2013 says, Bengal is among the top four states in the country when it comes to child marriage. This nation wide survey which has been conducted by the Centre has revealed that of the total marriages that take place in Bengal, 54.7% are of minor girls.
The total number of underage married girls, who have also become mothers before attaining the age of 15 in Bengal stands at a whopping 27,082, which is the second highest in the country.
The National Crime Records Bureau that has recently released data for 2012, has mentioned how a total of 88 arrests , related to child marriage, were carried out by the cops in Bengal between 2008-12. And this figure, incidentally is the highest in the country.
What are our field level experiences?
Our interventions at the field level (urban and rural) have also shown that child marriage remains an issue to be dealt with while we are working on the issues of the rights of girls. The same is reflected in our short term initiatives where we find child marriage is a medium through which girl children are trafficked frequently in the state.
In our experiences, in West Midnapore, we have found that of 47 cases of child marriage prevented ( from Feb-Sep 2013), at least 15 cases of child marriages were linked to trafficking.
In South 24 parganas where we have been working on VAW and VAG for years, it has been an experience that of the total child marriages that take place around 50% of them are trafficked in the name of marriage.
In these cases, there are absolutely no contact between the girls and their families once they are married off. Given West Bengal’s unique geographical location with as many as 9 border districts which it shares with Bangladesh, the incidences of child marriage can indeed be very threatening to girls.
While it is a reality that in rural areas the incidences are many and work around it is visible, in urban poor pockets too (including the ones in Kolkata and neighbouring municipalities) the situation is equally bad, though it often go unreported.
ActionAid India’s Kolkata regional office is working in several urban locations in the state and has found that there is a steady increase in such incidences.
The support for stopping such marriages is difficult to come by. Often the parents themselves are a barrier, in other cases even when such cases are reported to the police authorities there is no help forthcoming. Even when the Gram panchayat officials are informed, there is hardly any help from them either. When the girls rebel, they do not have places to go, stay and continue their study. Often when child marriages are stopped at their parental places, the relatives take them to other locations to get them married off.
In the urban location, it has been a rising phenomenon, where adolescent girls are lured away into marriages early by men. Child marriage is rampant in area where it starts from 11 yrs of age among girls due to insecurity in living in footpaths.
We have been witness to incidences that girls who have known men only for a couple of weeks have run away with them , looking for a better life. It is only with lot of support from NGOs and support from schools, that some of them have emerged from such situations and are now continuing with their studies.
While the Sarva Sikhsya Abhiyan is insistent that there are no incidents of dropout and the teachers are given the tasks of ensuring that all children enrolled are in school, there are no effort to ensure any education on relationship formation, the changes that takes place in adolescence an how to deal with it.
ActionAid India’s work in the region
To ensure that we can prevent child marriages we have adopted a multipronged effort. While we are working with the parents in the community, we are also working with the adolescents- both at school and in their villages. Further we are not only working with girls but involving boys too in these discussions.
In Murshidabad, where we work in Jangipur Subdivision in 6 blocks we have been able to completely stem child marriages in 16 villages for more than one and a half year now. Additional 8 villages have reported that there has been no child marriage this year till June – bringing the total to 24 villages.
This has been possible with the communities pledging to ensure that there will be no child marriages in their villages and the adolescent groups in the schools and villages working as watch groups to report any incidence or prolonged absence or child marriage about to take place.
We have also been able to form resource group from amongst the adolescents whose capacity is built not only on how child marriage affects their lives but they are also provided information on Prevention of Child Marriage Act itself.
As a part of the anti-child marriage campaign a monthly door to door campaign has been done in Murshidabad.
In other areas, we are in close connection with the panchayats and government officials and have shared their contact numbers with the community so that anyone can approach the government officials for enlisting their help.
There is a tracking system on VAW—villagers collect the cases and inform the project staff. In some places, rapid response groups have been formed who tip off project persons or government officials whenever they get to know about such marriages about to take place. In some places we have conducted sensitization meeting with lawyers-meeting for child marriage and prevention of domestic violence.
In many places we are engaging the community with the Salishi process (community mechanism to address VAW-though most cases women do not have any space to speak. We are ensuring that women can present their side of the story) to ensure justice to women.
In the last nine months, we have been able to prevent 112 child marriages from happening in our operational areas across 8 districts.
There are many risks that the staff face while trying to prevent child marriage- often the villagers are antagonistic to the staff, the police are not helpful and arrive late. Further the political parties pose threats. Sometimes when the police do come they do not file any case and just do a GD.
It is a long struggle, but one that all of us are determined to win.
(You can write to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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