A decade into the new millennium, and somewhere in the remote corners of the Satgawan Block in Koderma, Jharkhand, a group of five friends were getting ready to go for a wedding one summer morning. The mood was buoyant and the fun was yet to begin. They arranged for the presents for the bride and reached the venue at the village of Puthodih. But the bride was nowhere to be seen! When it was time for them to leave, upon their insisting, the mother of the groom arrived carrying the three year old bride in her arms. The little one had fallen asleep from the sheer exhaustion of the day’s proceedings.
The sight of the sleeping child jolted the five friends badly. They had previously attended many a wedding where the child had been a minor, but never one with such a toddler. For Narendra Prasad Yadav and his friends, it was an eye opener. That day, on their way back, they decided to start fighting against child marriage.
But it took them some more months to reach the starting block. Two years later, in 2012, they participated in a Rapid Assessment Survey on the status of child health and malnutrition, conducted by CRY – Child Rights and You and its alliance partner in Jharkhand. While conducting the survey, they found out that most of the children identified as malnourished belonged to the families where the mothers had been victims of child marriage and had given birth before reaching adulthood.
As Manoj Dangi, one of the five friends, recollects, “That indeed was the last and final call to have jolted us. This startling revelation was more than enough motivation for us to find out that child marriage is one of the root causes of child malnutrition. And we found the exact point where to start from.”
It took a while for the process to start off though. By 2014, this group was ready with their innovative plan of action. While they were doing their door-to-door research, they had figured that one of the strong fears that held back each parent was the fear of denouncing traditions. The attack had to be directed towards age-old norms of the society. This wasn’t easy, but the approach was fool-proof.
Four out of the five friends were by now part of the CRY supported project Rashtriya Jharkhand Seva Sansthan (RJSS), and Narendra had gone on to become the mukhiya of Terhro Gram Panchayat. RJSS started with sensitising the institutions – the Panchayats, the priests, the maulvis and the local Government Officials about the ill effects of child marriage and the fact that it was a crime. After several rounds of discussion, at an official meeting held at the RJSS office, the entire group took an oath, not only to do their best to stop child marriages, but also to not attend any marriage where the bride or the groom were minors.
Work started immediately in the five neighbouring Panchayats of Tehro, Kataiya, Mirganj, Basodih and Samaldih. Every Panchayat Pradhan gave it their best shot. “The discussion at the RJSS office opened my eyes. Being a woman myself, it wasn’t difficult for me to understand how important this cause is. It is a very difficult task to fight against tradition and I face opposition till date. But I am not going to give up,” says Sharmila Devi, the current Pradhan of the Tehro Panchayat.
“One of our best weapons in this fight has been the idea to felicitate the parents with a Shubhkamnapatra (a Certificate of Appreciation) from the local administration, if they refrain from marrying their children as minors. The Panchayat Pradhan hands over the certificate at a special ceremony thus establishing that the political head of the village stands by the family that is actually refuting the norms. This has helped us immensely. Not only to give the family due support against being outcaste by the village, but also by providing them with a document that can act as a legal marriage certificate if required,” says Manoj Dangi of RJSS.