India: Rejecting Early Marriage, Anu Wants To Go Back To School

Paschim Medinipur district (Women’s Feature Service) – Last monsoon, Anu Nayak’s elder sister dropped out of school and this year, it was the turn of the ninth grader from Midnapore town of Paschim Medinipur district in Bengal. Every rainy season, Nayak’s family falls into bad times financially because her father, a municipal sweeper, struggles with his job. With an exponential increase in his work load, he slogs all day but come nightfall he squanders his earnings on alcohol. Consequently, there is hardly any money left to keep the kitchen fires burning let alone fulfil any other need.

Being the daughter of a sanitation worker, who belongs to one of the most backward and outcast communities, deprivation and discrimination have been a part of the 16-year-old’s life for as long as she can remember. So naturally, she was ready to give up the ‘perk’ of schooling after which she knew she parents would start talking about an early marriage.

“What difference would it have made anyway? As it is our classes have been quite erratic because of the constant threat of extremist violence in the region. There have been so many times when I have not been able to attend school due to some incident. Last year, my sister had to drop out of school because my mother could not find work to pay for her education. And moreover, in my community girls do not study beyond Class Five. Why would my situation be any different?”

Resigned to her fate, Nayak was mentally preparing herself for the bleak future that awaited her – till she heard of something that has given her a reason to hope. Across Bengal, today, millions of girls are getting back to school and those at the verge of being pulled out are able to continue their studies thanks to a state scheme that is providing cash incentives to promote girls’ education and deter early marriage.

The West Bengal government’s Kanyashree Prakalpa scheme, which was launched in October 2013, promises a one-time grant of Rs 25,000 to girls 18 years and above, who have remained unmarried to pursue an education or professional training. Moreover, the initiative extends to all unmarried girls between 13 and 19 years with the state Department of Women & Child Development and Social Welfare providing them an annual scholarship of Rs 500.

“Recently, when my mother heard of this scheme she not only got my sister re-enrolled into school but now she doesn’t want to pull me out either. My grandmother who, till a few months back, was insisting upon her marriage has dropped the idea altogether. She knows that way we would be entitled to the cash benefit being given by the government. These days, my sister Bharti and I both go to school regularly. Once Bharti turns 18 next year she is hopeful of getting Rs 25,000, some of which will enable her to do a course later,” says Nayak with a wide smile.

This conditional cash transfer scheme is exactly what young girls in Bengal need to fully enjoy their childhood and also secure their future? After all, neither the odds nor the statistics paint a favourable picture. According to government data, out of the total number of 1.73 crore adolescents (10-19 years) in the state – incidentally, they make up 20 per cent of the population – 83 lakh, or 8.3 million, are girls. While children in this age group have a tremendous potential for physical and mental growth, they are also considerably vulnerable to falling victim to harmful social practices, particularly child marriage.

As per the third District Level Household Facility Survey (DLHFS), Bengal ranks fifth among the Indian states with a high prevalence of child marriage. In fact, around 55 per cent of married women between 20-24 years have been pushed into matrimony before they turned 18. Under age marriage is significantly higher in the rural areas where high drop out rates and the threat of trafficking feed this unfortunate reality.

When the Kanyashree Prakalpa scheme was being conceptualised, a couple of factors were taken into consideration. It was felt that the greatest obstacle to girls’ education was child marriage, domestic responsibilities and early pregnancy. “So, if early marriage could be discouraged then it would automatically mean a better life for them later on. We felt that keeping girls in school was the best way to deal with this grave problem. The Kanyashree scheme was launched last year and it has become immensely popular. Even as the beneficiaries get a small sum annually as an incentive to go to school it’s the expectation of the one-time sizeable grant of Rs 25,000 that keeps them there till they turn 18. Moreover, from this year on, August 14 will be celebrated as Kanyashree Diwas,” elaborates Farzana Alam, Deputy Mayor of Kolkata Municipal Corporation.

Reveals Toton Saspillya, Ward Councillor of Midnapore Municipal Corporation, “In the first year, more than 16 lakh girls in the district have registered under this scheme. The response has been phenomenal.” At the village level, it’s the gram pradhan, who works in tandem with the Block Development Officer, to provide an income certificate – monthly earnings of not more than Rs 10,000 – which is one of the key criteria for registration. The municipal corporation councillor through the district administration does the same in towns. The head teachers of the nearest secondary/higher secondary schools have been instructed to help applicants in the process and facilitate the opening of a bank account. At the same time, banks have been directed to open the accounts by setting up camps in schools. The Kanyashree application and the account opening form are submitted at school.

“Although girls covered under the scholarship scheme get small annual support of Rs 500, for families whose annual income is not more than Rs 50,000, even this is a big support. In addition, the child feels empowered as she gets a bank account in her name,” observes Tafajjal Hossen, Pradhan of Bankibandh Anchal village in Salboni block, which is a hotbed for Naxal violence.

Rumni Jasmin, 14, a Class Nine student of Nandari Sastri Smrity Vidyapith in Satbanki village of Salboni block, is a trendsetter in her family, where no woman either studied beyond Class Five or managed to bring in money. “My mother always wanted me to study but my father, a small time lottery ticket seller, was keen on getting me married. Many of my peers in the village have already tied the knot, but somehow I have escaped it till now. At present, however, my parents have abandoned the idea my marriage,” she says happily. It was at the behest of their Pradhan that she applied for the scholarship. “These days, I see girls going back to school so that they can also get a bank account and scholarship,” she adds.

“It’s my dream to become a teacher,” shares Sutapa Hati, 15, another youngster from Satbanki, “Earlier, it seemed impossible for one to pursue studies. Sometimes the school would be closed and sometimes my parents would fear for my safety, which is generally a matter concern for most families in the area. They don’t want to take any risk of abuse or assault so marriage looks like a better option. Of course, with this support coming in my resolve to have a career has only gotten firmer. I will definitely complete my education.”

For the remarkable impact it has already had the Kanyashree scheme has been recognised by UNICEF and Department of International Development (DFID) as a model for curbing child marriage and promoting girl child education. The UNICEF is also assisting the state in the evaluation and monitoring of the Rs 1,000 crore scheme that is expected to benefit more than 24 lakh girls by the end of the financial year.

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