Pooja Kumar was just a 10-year-old when she dropped out of school. Her father, a poor farmer from Bihar’s Gaya district, could afford to educate only one of his five children. He chose the youngest – the only son.
Pooja’s sisters were married off when they were 14, a common practice in Bihar, which along with Rajasthan, is among the states that reports the highest number of child marriages in India. The practice is illegal under the Prohibition of Child Marriage act. However, according to the most recent national survey in 2005-2006, 58% of girls marry before reaching the legal age of 18, and 74% before they are 20.
It is a fate that Pooja is determined to avoid. At 17, she is still single despite strong disapproval from some family members and some neighbours.
Pooja has taken her battle into the community as well. She is a youth leader with The Jagriti Trust, an NGO that is trying to motivate and train boys and girls from the community to get involved in local issues and become agents of change.
Through workshops they are taught to question rigid societal norms that lie behind practices like early marriage which bolster gender inequalities.
“Who says girls are born only to marry and have children?” asks Pooja at a meeting held in Vaishali district. “Look at our history, at women like Jhansi Ki Rani. All women can be Jhansi Ki Ranis and we have to help each other realize that”.
Pooja’s conviction comes at a personal cost.
“My grandmother wanted me to marry when I turned 12” she tells TNM. “I told her that if I am not mature enough to vote until I am 18, then I am not mature enough to marry either. She doesn’t talk to me anymore.”
Her father disapproves of her work and tries to stop her from attending meetings. “My mother believes in me but she can’t take my father on all the time.I draw strength from childhood friends who tell me that their lives ended when they married early,” she says.
Jagriti Trust has set up youth leadership councils across three districts in Bihar. Some of their members are as young as 13 years of age. They use different platforms to educate people about issues like sanitation and even family planning.
The causes they take up are sensitive, but the response in many areas has been largely positive. Some villages even have all-women councils.
“We initially faced strong opposition from village elders”, says Premnath, 19, a youth leader from Ismailpur who too came under immense pressure to marry after he finished school. “It was particularly hard to convince girls’ parents. But we were patient and they eventually came around”.
“In my experience adolescents are looking for inputs and guidance but there is no one to show them the way,’’ says Dr Rema Nanda, founder of The Jagriti Trust.“We need to equip them with the tools to question stereotypes, mobilize and become community leaders”.
This approach, of targeting boys alongside girls, is a shift away from the decades old approach of government programmes targeting girls. But over time there has been growing acknowledgement of the need to engage boys and try to change their attitude.
A 2012 UNICEF Report highlighted just how urgent the need for such an intervention is. Among other things it revealed that 54% of men in India believed that wife beating is acceptable. “Our assessments have shown that changes in behaviour are much deeper and substantial when we reach out to boys and girls at a young age” says Nanda
It is a view echoed by other experts. “Men too are victims of masculinity and patriarchy”, says Dr Nayreen Daruwala, Programme Director, Society for Nutrition, Education & Health Action (SNEHA) which runs youth empowerment programs in the slums of Mumbai. “They are under immense pressure to always be macho, strong, and virile and not show their emotions. We need to address these notions when they are young,” he says.
This article appeared in the online news site The News Minute