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Singing their way out of child marriage
Oommen C. / Oommen C Kurian and Savvy Soumya Misra
A street-play against child marriage underway at an advocacy event in Ormanjhi (Photograph:Sanjay Sarangi, CINI)
Jharkhand resists child marriage through folk songs, street plays and theatre
“Chotta umare chotta umare na debe biha, suna baba o, chotta umare na debe biha.” (I am young, I am young. Don't marry me off. Father are you listening, I am young don't marry me off)
Seventeen-year-old Suman was singing at a small meeting when I first met her. The song, loosely translated, is a plea to her father to not marry her off, as she is very young. In Ormanjhi block’s Jidu village, Jharkhand, Suman is a celebrity of sorts — composing and singing her songs in the local Nagpuri dialect.
But she is a crusader celebrity — her songs talk about the ills of child marriage and motivate the villagers to shun the practice.
Data from the Annual Health Survey 2012-13 show that of the married women aged 20-24 years in Jharkhand, a shocking 45% were married before 18 years of age.
In districts like Deoghar and Giridih, almost two out of three marriages are before the legal marriageable agei . Though the average age of marriage has slightly improved over the years, there is still a long distance to cover. A study on the practices of child marriage in North Indian states (including Jharkhand), conducted by the GB Pant Institute of Studies in Rural Development, observed “earlier there used to be small children seated in their parents’ lap while they got married. Now they are adolescents or teenagers, but still under the age of 18.”ii
Suman and her friends use songs to convince their community. Songs, even in international campaigns like the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) of South Africa, have proved to be a very effective strategy in mobilizing community and garnering support. The South African campaign used songs, tunes of which were borrowed from the struggle against apartheidiii , as a crucial medium of community mobilization and the collective learning through such songs got transformed into big impacts.
Though songs play a key role in spreading the message, Suman was part of a larger transformation that was taking place in some parts of Jharkhand. Under the project ‘Improving maternal health in six states of India’ Oxfam India partnered with Child In Need Institute (CINI), activated village level institutions and strengthened the community to ensure better delivery of health and nutritional services.
This was complemented by the formation of Village Level Health Resource Centre (VHRC). The Centre was to the villagers, both a resource centre as well as a platform to learn and disseminate knowledge.
CINI is working towards making these centres the one stop repository of all ongoing community based monitoring of health facilities, outcomes of planning process of health committee meetings, information on all schemes related to health and nutrition. They have been successful to an extent.
The centre, which doubles up as a library, provides information and counselling around child marriage, health and nutritional issues. Counselling, on the varied topics, is offered by Barefoot Auditors, project animators, Anganwadi Sevika and Sahiyya. VHRC hosts weekly meetings for the adolescent girls’ group, which Suman is a part of. The group meets regularly to discuss issues related to health, hygiene, sanitation and marriage. Suman too is a part of a team of peer educators.
Oxfam India has partnered with CINI in two districts in the state — Ranchi and Hazaribagh. In these parts songs and street plays, by the girls’ group, are a regular feature at the health melas. For instance, Palu village, in Ranchi district, that has had three health melas till now, has seen a big impact on the way people see child marriage. The village health committee actively advocates against child marriage; there have been no child marriages for the last few years now.
The Sahiyyas’ take considerable risk in the process of spreading the message as well. In one of the villages, a few gram sabha members who went to convince a family against marriage of their school-going daughter were insulted and abused. The family accused the Sahiyya of obstructing the wedding; they accused her of being jealous because she was unable to find a suitable groom for her 15-year-old! Finally the threat of criminal proceedings worked with the family and the idea of the child marriage was nipped in the bud.
What has also changed in the last few years is the freedom for girls. Girls, in the past, were not allowed to venture out of their homes but have now started playing a key role in the health melas. Sunita Devi, a Sahiyya says, that earlier girls were not even allowed to sing but Suman has been an inspiration. Suman has been featured on radio shows and now aspires to be a trained musician.
Meeting up and talking with villagers, one realizes that the adolescent girls’ groups are grooming many more like Suman. The sentiment gradually setting in is that ‘no girl should be illiterate’. For instance, the girls’ group of Mukru village of Hazaribagh district has an informal and a small savings scheme. All the 19 members of the group deposit five rupees every week, something they save from their pocket money. This money is later used as registration fee for the intermediate level exam for those who can’t afford to pay the fee.
What is heartening is the fact that Suman and the girls are confident of running the VHRC and the girls’ group even after the funders and donors project pull out of these villages. “We have got a lot of support. The information has made us aware and we will make others aware too,” said some of the group members during our meeting on the last day of our visit.
iiiNathan Geffen (2010), Debunking Delusions: The Inside Story of the Treatment Action Campaign, Jacana Media, Cape Town.
The authors work with the policy, research and campaigns team of Oxfam India
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