SUSMITA GUHA/SOUMI GUHA
Recently, the state of West Bengal from the foothills of the Himalayas till the shores of the Bay of Bengal was decked-up like a bride to welcome its favourite daughter ‘Uma’ or more popularly to celebrate the ‘Durga Puja’. We were soaked in the pomp and grandeur of festivities to worship the Almighty who, according to popular belief, had defeated the evil power of ‘Mahisasura’ to establish peace in the world. But on the other hand, behind this arch-light, the darkest side whispers the story of the agony of thousands of daughters in the state who become victims of early marriage that has a direct impact on not only on society but on families as well.
International Girl Child Day is observed on 11th October to uphold the rights of girls but the dichotomy and ever-increasing cases of child brides in the state that grab everyday headlines brings us back to the question of what puts our girls at risk.
The recently released data set of Sample Registration Survey-2020 pin-points towards the ill-fated situation of our ‘Umas’ at home. The data specifically points out that there are 4.7% under-18 brides in the state which is significantly higher than the national average of 1.9%.
The data also says that about 50.2% of girls get married between the age group of 18-21 which too is quite higher than the national average of 27.6%. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5, 2019-20) too indicates that 41.6% of girls are getting married before 18 years of age.
The pandemic has put our girls in the state at an increased risk of getting married early as there has been a considerable loss in livelihood, coupled with the long closure of schools, during the lockdown. With already an increased rate of natural calamities that leads to substantial loss of livelihood, closure of schools and other such external factors in the state has given a huge jolt to the limited progress that has been made to curb gender inequality in general and child marriage in particular. The pandemic and the subsequent natural calamity have exacerbated the existing inequalities for girls especially, in the state for every sphere.
There has been progress over the last decades. More girls are going to school, fewer girls are forced into early marriage, more women are serving in parliament and positions of leadership, and laws are being reformed to advance gender equality. Despite these gains, many challenges remain such as discriminatory laws and social norms remain pervasive; women continue to be underrepresented at all levels of political leadership, child marriage and adolescent pregnancy had slowed to a halt. With the prolonged closure of schools coupled with the loss of parental livelihood, girls especially were affected in the worst way. To ensure a secure future many girls in the state have become silent victims of child marriage. The pandemic coupled with back-to-back natural disasters like Amphand and Yaas that had hit the state of West Bengal during the past two summers has put the progress for girls to halt that was achieved in the past decade.
With the ever-increasing child marriage, the quintessential question that comes to our mind, is whether it is not high time to sensitize our boys and parents at large on why they should treat their own ‘Uma’ or daughters? One should ponder the thought that we should not educate our girls instead of marrying them early? Time has come to look beyond the pomp and grandeur of rituals, it is essential to look back at the backyard to adorn the human-face of ‘Uma’ present there.
The state needs to develop a synergistic solution, especially with a larger focus on prevention to address child marriages at its roots and ensuring learning education through safe schools return of all the enrolled children, especially girls. Award-winning popular schemes like the KanyashreePrakalpa that now covers 52.5 lakh girls in the state need to be made more easily accessible and available, to reverse the data.
Strict implementation of laws in a time-bound manner with simultaneous awareness to change the outlook of communities might pave the path for some solution to the issue to some extent. There needs to be a change in the outlook among boys and the community at large, who need to be oriented to work together to pave the path for an equitable society. Strengthening family finances and gender-sensitive access to opportunities for skill development and employment might help us rebuild our homes and our economy with sustainable collaborative action together. Putting young women and girls at the centre of economies will fundamentally drive better and more sustainable development outcomes.
The government of West Bengal must invest in grassroots advocacy to spearhead awareness about child marriage and its impact on life-cycle. Plurality of approach and affirmative action by both state government and civil society organisations can build a resilient community where girls are safe, this only can ‘re-write’ their future and that can bring about the best festival gift to the girls of our state.
(Authors: Susmita Guha, Senior Manager, Save the Children, West Bengal Project Office and Soumi Guha Halder, Manager- Campaigns and Communication (East), Save the Children)