Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu: Early marriage of children, mostly girls, has been rampant in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district, 300 km from the state capital Chennai. In 2017 alone, nearly 147 child marriages were reported and prevented in the district. Girls are often forced to drop out from the schools and sent to work in the nearby textile mills, where they say, they face abuse. According to the villagers, parents fear their children would elope and get married (often in other castes), bringing ‘bad name’ to the family, and thus consider early marriage as the best solution.
To fight such mentality and give a fair chance to children through education and skill training, National Child Labour Project (NCLP), with the support of UNICEF, started an Adolescents Empowerment Programme two years ago. It formed around 80 functional groups with 15-20 members each in the district.
Amritha, 18, is one of the most articulate members and is also the President of the Kalpana Chawla Adolescent Empowerment Group. She told NDTV, “We look forward to the group meetings that happen twice every month. This is an open place where all members talk freely about their problems and sit together to work on the solutions. This way, as a community, we grow and evolve together.”
Since the intervention of the programme, more child marriages have started getting reported and prevented in Dharmapuri.
One such marriage was stopped by the timely intervention by Amritha, who called Childline on 1098 – the toll-free helpline number for children in distress – and reported the incident. The activists acted immediately, mediated and stopped that marriage. The responsibility of rehabilitating the girl was also borne by the activists.
The group’s pro-activeness also helped in constructing a toilet in the premises, a relief for young girls who had no choice but to defecate in the open. They also escalated the matter of leaking rooms in the school building and got them fixed. With these breakthroughs, a heightened sense of confidence surrounds them.
“The programme imparts training on life skills, reproductive health and child rights,” said Amritha.
The effort is to mobilise adolescents, give them a platform and exposure, provide them with right skills and link them with child protection systems, so that they are empowered to solve individual and community’s problems, a programme official said.
Another member Athilaxmi, 17, said, “We are heard by the district officials and they also act on our demands. This way, we have found recognition and respect in the community.”
The members now dream of making their village open-defecation free and are also writing to the officials demanding a big dustbin.
There is also a heightened sense of community participation, the one Amritha said was not easy to achieve. “We all faced initial resistance from our family members, but when they started seeing that we are learning, growing and getting empowered, there has been 100 per cent support.”
The anganwadi worker told NDTV that there is a good sense of awareness on maternal and child health issues and all the deliveries take place in the nearby district hospital only.
To celebrate Universal Children’s Day on November 20, UNICEF is working with children and adolescents to champion the rights of the children. This Adolescent Empowerment Programme is a crucial part of it, N Saravanan, Director of National Child Labour Project in Dharmapuri, said.
“These adolescents are now speaking with clarity, sharing their views and communicating their demands and needs to their service providers. I am seeing an overall development of the community through their empowerment,” he added.
Amidst a group of villagers, when Amritha was asked if she would like to contest elections in the future, she replied without battling an eye, “If I get an opportunity, why not?” Her confident reply earned her a loud cheer from the villagers who see a prospective leader in this young and passionate teenager and a role model for their children.