Over the telephone from Bhagwan Allah, a street in Pandeypur in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, it takes a second for 17 year-old Chanda Kumari Bhardwaj to find what is a suitable term to describe where she lives. “Bhagwan Allah has gaon-type people,” she says.
She isn’t patronising though — everything in the conversation which follows indicates Bhardwaj is proud of all things Bhagwan Allah. Life is tough, money is tougher to come by, but parents, at least, cannot force their minor daughters to get married anymore. Lest Bhardwaj finds out.
In 2007, when Bhardwaj was 12 years old and already a member of the local bal panchayat, she once came home to find her parents casually bring up the topic of her marriage with her, and gradually told her it was time. “It was not a question, it was a declaration,” she says.
Bhardwaj says she doesn’t know what it was, but something about getting married then didn’t sit well with her. “I didn’t go to school back then, because my parents didn’t have the money. My mother worked at the NGO, Peoples Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), supported by the NGO Child Rights and You (CRY), and told me about their work sometimes. But I don’t even know whether it was a stray story…” says Bhardwaj, trying to fathom what stopped her from bowing down to family pressure at the age of 12. “Maybe it was the bal panchayat. I saw children my age have a say and actually execute decisions. Somewhere, it must have struck me it was possible.”
Her first time
All hell broke loose after Bhardwaj refused to marry. “It had never happened before in Bhagwan Allah,” says Bhardwaj, remembering what it felt like to look up into her grandmother’s seething eyes and tell her that she didn’t want to get married. “Hours after I said it out loud and news spread that a 12 year-old had refused to get married, neighbours came to our home and began blaming the fact that I am part of the bal panchayat, which ‘brainwashes’ girls and turns them into rebels.”
Bhardwaj was scared, but not surprised at how the neighbourhood reacted to her decision. In Bhagwan Allah, she says, girls are brought up to follow rules. “We are spectators — right from the cops who extort us for money, to the society which thinks it is best to marry young girls off to avoid a large dowry later on. People openly say that child marriage is the surest way to ‘protect’ a girl’s izzat (modesty),” she says with obvious disgust.
Bhardwaj, however, knows better. Days after she stood up against her marriage, she decided to join PVCHR, where she was taught about child rights, especially those of girls.
“Things at home turned worse, because more people began coming over and telling my parents that I was “getting out of hand” and that no ‘good’ boy will ever want to marry me. But I don’t care. I want to marry someone who treats me as an equal.”
Bhardwaj’s fight against child marriage isn’t just limited to refusing to bow down to family pressure — she now stages anti-child marriage plays across her area and in neighbouring villages, too. “My friends and I also paint posters about the message and put them up across our area.”
In 2010, Bhardwaj managed to stop child marriages of four girls in her area — through exhorting, cajoling even threatening the parents with the laws against child marriage. Earlier this year, she stopped the ‘gauna’ ceremony of a minor girl who was married. “The married girl goes to her husband’s home after the gauna. We couldn’t help the fact that she was married, but I wanted to fight for her right to stay at her maternal home until she turned 18.”
Bhardwaj sent repeated summons to the girl’s father, who did end up attending the a bal panchayat out of sheer frustration more than remorse. “We had covered the city’s famous chai ki dukaan (tea shop) with posters summoning the father. He had to come,” giggles Bhardwaj. At the bal panchayat, Bhardwaj threatened him with a police complaint. “Oh, he was livid. He said, ‘Yeh ladki hamare saamne paida hui aur ab humein hi dhamka rahi hai (This girl was born before our eyes and is now threatening us). He even went to my mother’s workplace and threatened to kidnap me. My mother looked the other way and dared him to try it,” says Bhardwaj.
People in Bhagwan Allah think twice before getting their minor daughters married, says Bhardwaj. She isn’t boasting — there have been no child marriages over the last two years in the area. “When I grow up,” says Bhardwaj, “I’ll be an inspector and ensure no girl has to do anything against her wishes.”
A ‘suitable’ girl
Seventeen year-old Uma Ghosh says she has never been as scared of anything as much as those inebriated eyes she looked into a few months ago. “I wanted to run. The man was the father of a minor girl and was about to get her married, and I was there to convince him against the decision and, if need arose, threaten to report him to the police.”
Ghosh is part of a UNICEF-supported intervention in the Malda district of West Bengal, with the district administration, which empowers girls with information about their rights.
“I was deep inside one of the tribal belts around Malda and the locals there are notorious for their alcohol consumption. And I went there alone.” Ghosh can be heard rattling the story off in Bengali over the telephone, without stopping for breath. Her translator explains her speech.
“I was alone, because the tip off I was waiting for since two days then came at a time when I couldn’t gather any elder around my area. It was important — the marriage could have been taking place that very minute,” she says, in that characteristic, animated voice again.
The father, did finally relent, says Ghosh. “I went there twice, and he wouldn’t listen to me the first time because he was not drunk enough. The second time, he was adequately drunk and understood the logic — or the threat, actually,” says Ghosh, without a trace of humour in her voice.
Ghosh candidly admits that she was in the tribal girl’s position last year. “One day, I came home and my aunt had come over to discuss a ‘suitable’ boy for me. He was 35 years old — which is common in smaller villages. The boys take all the time they want to make a living, and they scout minor girls because they are apparently ‘prettier’. But they couldn’t kid me. I know just why they seek minor girls.” Ghosh knew enough about child trafficking (something she was afraid the boy might commit) and the legal aspects of child marriage. “I cried a lot, threw tantrums, and just refused to get married. I think my family got sick of the drama and gave up,” she says with a smile.
Now, Ghosh has formed the Adolescents Group in Malda and enacts plays on child marriage, and works with the NGO to dissuade parents from getting their minor girls married. “I’ve managed to stop nine child marriages over the past one year,” she says.
“It’s not like I never want to get married. I also know it will be difficult to find a boy who respects my views and my work — most men here are regressive. I’ll marry only when I find a boy who respects my cause. This is me, and I do not want to go back to where I was.”
Far from Varanasi and Malda, in Matheran in Raigad district, Maharashtra, 15 year-old Neeta Bujule has a similar story. A year ago, as she sat outside her home with her maths homework in her lap, she saw three strangers walk up to her and smile. Soon, her mother asked her to dress up in a saree.
“I did as I was told and walked into a room where the parents sat with their 21 year-old son seated between them. They asked me what class I studied in, while their son only gazed at me and said nothing throughout the meeting. I remember how my grandmother was positively excited.”
Bujule, who is part of a UNICEF-supported intervention in Matheran which educates girls about their rights, refused to get married. “This is not how it is supposed to be,” she says in halting Hindi over the telephone. “I told them I wanted to study and my grandmother blamed my education for my decision.”
A year before this incident, Bujule had formed a group of 17 minor girls in Matheran. “Most of them were dropouts, were really keen on marriage and were not thinking of further education at all,” she says. Bujule formed the group to change their mind and succeeded. So, last year, when Bujule’s best friend, Urmila was about to be married off as a minor, Bujule fell back on her trusty clique to save her from the ordeal. “We began going to Urmila’s home everyday and convinced her parents to drop the idea. I plan to continue doing that in Matheran. No girl should ever be married off before 18 and against her wishes.”