Campaign already totals 1.2 girls for the end of child marriage after an increase in cases due to the economic crisis
About 1,200 girls decided to join forces in Rajasthan, a state in northern India. All share a common enemy: child marriage, a culture that intensified amid the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the city of Karauli, girls have started a campaign to discourage parents who plan to marry their daughters before they reach adulthood, reported the Qatari agency Al-Jazeera.
Activists visit marginalized communities and explain the disadvantages of child marriage. They also signed an agreement with the Indian government to grant scholarships so that girls do not drop out of school.
The initiative is led by 18-year-old Priyanka Berwa. After convincing her own parents that she didn't want to get married, in October of last year, she gathered nine other girls and started the Movement for the Education of Girls Dalit Retrograde Tribal Groups, literally translated.
Regarded as “untouchables,” Dalits are at the bottom of India's caste hierarchy – a prohibited but widespread system. Unlike other ethnic groups and called “retrograde groups”, Dalits do not receive special protection the Indian constitution, which gives rise to crimes such as child marriage.
“Almost all girls go through the same thing,” said Priyanka. “Nobody wants to educate girls after high school, and the pandemic has made it worse. With schools closed, few have cell phones or internet access”. The activist says that she “was lucky” and managed to convince her parents, who themselves have been married since they were 14 years old.
With unemployment rates soaring, many families in the region have found themselves without a fixed income since the beginning of 2020. Marriage, often with older men, has become a chance to fix finances, as it yields a dowry to the bride's family.
One step at a time
Priyanka's initiative demonstrates the courage to fight the tide of child marriages in Rajasthan. Despite being illegal, 35.4% of women between the ages of 20 and 24 had already been married before turning 18 in 2016. The national average, at the time, was 27%, according to the National Family Health Survey of India .
Worldwide, annually, at least 12 million girls marry before their 18th birthday. The prevalence is higher in South Asia, pointed out the UN (United Nations). Almost 30% of all women aged 20 to 24 in the continental region were married before reaching adulthood.
Child marriage is already one of the main side effects of the pandemic. Also in June 2020, the organization ChildLine, a government agency that protects children at risk in India, registered 92,200 interventions – 35% on early marriages.
more confident girls
Meanwhile, Priyanka's initiative bets on patience to change the vision of communities. If before it was just her and nine friends, today there are more than 1,200 young people between 13 and 18 years old united by the cause.
The movement, which has become popular on the streets of Kirali, is already knocking on the doors of older people and community leaders to convince them of the risks and harms of early marriage. The girls in Rajasthan have already sent emails to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a start to political pressure that goes beyond the state.
The move has made the girls more confident, 17-year-old Neelam Mahavar reported. “I want to be a teacher, and my sister a collector [kind of district bureaucrat]. We are hard workers and we have faith in ourselves,” she said.
“Nobody thinks of boys as a burden. Older people think that girls are rebellious if they study more. I want to change that mindset,” she said.