The latest Census report says that nearly one in every three married women in India were married off below the legal age of 18 years, a grim reminder of how widespread child marriage is in the country.
Clearly, the practice continues despite the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act because it has strong social sanction.
What is needed is a change in mindset, and that is what the Jagriti Trust, a youth-driven intervention in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan is trying to achieve. Bihar reports the highest number of underage marriages in India – nearly 60% girls are married off before they are 18, and 74% before they are 20.
The Jagriti Trust tries to motivate young boys and girls from the community to get involved in local issues like sanitation, hygiene and education of girls and become agents of change.
The strongest challenge sometimes comes from within the families.
Pooja, 20, who refused to go along with her parents’ wishes and marry at the age of 14 like her sisters did, said, “My father stopped talking to me and I was ignored in my house. It was very hard to cope but I saw what my sisters were going through and was determined to avoid that fate.”
Today. Pooja is a youth leader with the Jagriti Trust and encourages other girls’ to find their voices. She leads workshops where young boys and girls are taught to question the mindset behind practices like early marriage and dowry.
The Jagriti Trust has set up youth councils in three districts of Bihar. The causes they take up are sensitive, but their patient approach seems to have paid off.
“Village elders initially opposed us”, said Premnath, 19, from Ismailpur, who continues to face intense family pressure to marry. “But we took our time in explaining our side and participated in other village activities and gained their trust.”
Dr Rema Nanda, founder of the Jagriti Trust says that by reaching out to boys and girls, it hopes to achieve a larger behavioral change.
“Reaching out to girls alone is not enough because boys too are victims of patriarchal norms and we need to teach them the value of questioning stereotypes. It is time we stopped regarding them as the Other and keeping them out”, she said.
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