There are millions of girls across India, who are waiting to find their voice and realise their dreams; let’s extend a helping hand
17-year-old Suparna (name changed to protect identity) lives in a slum on the southern fringes of Kolkata. She doesn’t know much about her city, or her country, or the world around her. In a dark corner of a crammed shanty, which she shares with her grandparents, parents and a younger sister, she keeps herself busy in household chores. When she feels low or tired, she listens to Arijit Singh songs on her friend’s phone. Why is she sad? She chooses to remain silent. “Tumi jibone ki hote chao (what do you want to be in life),” we ask her. Eyes lowered down, she manages an indifferent shrug. The silence is deafening.
Suparna dropped out of school a couple of years ago, after clearing her Madhyamik Exam. She knew that her family would not be able to bear educational expenses of two girls simultaneously, and she wanted her 10-year-old sister Titli (name changed) to pursue her studies. Her grandmother, who runs the family with her meager earnings as a domestic help, saw no reason to object. Suparna even stopped going out to play with friends, primarily to avoid jibes in the community about how girls are best at home doing homely chores. No questions were asked, no eyebrows were raised.
Strange are the ways of life, they say. As Suparna stayed back at home and watched, 10-year-old Titli started attending special classes in the community, run by CRY – Child Rights and You (CRY) and Praajak, a grassroots level organisation partnered by CRY. And it was this 10-year-old who brought her teachers home to convince her elder sister to resume studies. The teachers spent long hours with Suparna, trying to convince her to join classes, and even to get admitted to school. “Wouldn’t it be so much better if you resume studies, work hard, get a job and help out your sister and family,” her teacher couldn’t have put it better.
The spark in Suparna’s eyes was slowly coming back, but it was clear she was in a tearing dilemma. Numerous counseling sessions later, change seems to be happening, one step at a time. She now attends special classes in her community and is slowly picking up English and computers. She also makes it a point to attend the mental health and life skill sessions, where teachers motivate her to come out of her shell, and fight back.
Riya (name changed) comes from a family of four daughters and one son. She lives in a single-roomed shanty, two doors away from Suparna. She is from a conservative Gujarati community, settled in this slum pocket for generations. As is common practice within the community, one of Riya’s elder sisters was married off at 14/15 and is now a 20-year-old mother. Riya used to study in a local school, but dropped out one day without any reason. She spent her days at home, doing household chores, looking after her younger brother and idly waiting to become a “child bride”.
Well, destiny would have probably charted its due course, but for younger brother Aryan, who joined the CRY intervention classes in the community. He brought his teachers home to talk to his sister and free her of the self-imposed shackles. The first session Riya attended turned out to be significant as she discovered her own self. Her desire to lead a ‘normal’ life was being rekindled, slowly but steadily.
A trait in Riya that drew the attention of the teachers was her knack for painting and drawing. Colour pencils and drawing book in hand, the young girl was a different person, much more resilient and expressive. From that day on, drawing and painting became Riya’s tool for educational rehabilitation. She started taking interest in English and computer, became a more confident person and even shared a laugh or two with friends. Much like brother Aryan, who wants to become a cricketer aka Rohit Sharma when he grows up, Riya too has started dreaming about a normal future — a future where she will earn her own living and rule her own life. And, with help from her community didis, Riya has rejoined school in Class X, her focus firmly on her first hurdle — her Board exams next year.
Suparna and Riya don’t know much about National Girl Child Day, observed on January 24 every year. They don’t know that the sole objective of this day is to generate awareness about the rights of girls, their education, their well-being, their health and nutrition and to create a safe and inclusive space for them to grow and flourish.
Unfortunately, despite the prominent discourse on girls’ empowerment and education in the country, there remain roadblocks. The biased gender construct is deeply ingrained into our society; and girls, even today, bear the brunt. Parents, especially in underprivileged communities, still consider them to be a “burden” that they want to shed off as early as possible. Also to be noted is that in many cases — Suparna’s and Riya’s for example — the girls themselves are not averse to the idea of getting married early. They have seen it happening many times in their communities, and they have not been taught to question the gender stereotypes. They don’t know the importance of education, and they don’t realise that early marriage is often the first step into the vicious circle of early pregnancy, ill health, malnutrition and sometimes, sexual abuse, exploitation and even trafficking. In a nutshell, they remain ignorant of their rights as an individual — the right to lead a normal and healthy life, the right to question, the right to work and so many more.
No surprise that child marriage percentage in some states of the country, including West Bengal, where Suparna and Riya live, is higher than the national average. According to NFHS-V data, 23.3 per cent of women aged 20-24 years married before the age of 18, nationally. Nine states / UTs have figures that are higher than the national average. West Bengal tops the list with 41.6 per cent of women aged 20-24 years marrying before they were 18. In Bihar, the percentage of such women stands at 40.8 per cent.
A recent CRY research study on Child Marriage in India lists ‘financial constraints’ and ‘educational attainment’ as two key determinants of child marriages in the country. The study analyses that child marriage rates tend to be higher among lower and middle-income households that have fewer resources and opportunities to invest in alternative options for girls (educational, vocational and more). “This tends to create a double burden on girls where inaccessibility to adequate resources adds onto the households making decisions regarding early marriage of their girls,” the CRY report states.
Going back to Suparna and Riya, financial hardships, family environment and stereotypical notions had led them to dropping off from school, and choosing (forcibly or otherwise) to live a shackled life. Fortunately, there was a kid sister in Suparna’s life and a brother in Riya’s, to show them the right of way. Most importantly, help was at hand. Planned intervention in their community, by CRY and partners, has ensured that the two young girls are back where they rightfully belong, with books in their hands and dreams in their eyes.
Given the multipronged thrust on girls’ empowerment and education and the positive trends in data overall, as compared to previous years, there is reason for hope. There are millions of girls across the country, like Suparna and Riya, who are finding their voice, realising their dreams and deciding to fight back. And, there are a thousand others and more, who are waiting to be helped.
On National Girl Child Day and indeed all year round, let’s extend a helping hand, make people aware of the perils of child marriage and tell parents that their daughters deserve education and a better life.
Let our girls rise and shine!
Trina Chakrabarti is Director, CRY – Child Rights and You, East
Views expressed are personal and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.