Kishori Clubs Save Teenage Girls From The Trap of Child Marriage

By Teresa Rehman,Womens Feature Service

“We are adolescent girls. We should be careful during this period. There is a time for everything. Things should happen when it should. We should complete our studies on time.”

As Tileswari Kurmi, 17, claps and sings this peppy song she has composed herself, her friends tap their feet and join in. Sprightly and poised, Tileswari is the leader of the Adolescent Girls Club (AGC) of Rungliting Tea Estate in Assam’s Dibrugarh district. Besides organising these musical sessions, she also gives tips on reproductive health and discusses pertinent issues like the ill-effects of child marriage.

Within the serene precincts of the tea estate she resides in, Tileswari was leading a mundane life and struggling with her studies and daily household chores until she joined the club. She says, “Earlier, I used to be very shy. But now I am confident and can give public lectures. I have even started composing songs. I had no aspirations. But now, I want to do something in life.”

Kishori Clubs provide young teenage girls living on tea estates in the state the opportunity to get out of home and broaden their horizons. Members meet up at least four times in a month and they look forward to playing games like kabbadi, football or carrom or learning new crafts like knitting and embroidery. Amidst all these fun-filled moments they also learn about the “facts of life”, their health and other social issues.

Of course, happy teenagers make for happy parents, many of whom are pleasantly surprised at the positive change they now see in their daughters. All of a sudden, they seem more responsible and aware of their well-being.

An initiative of the Bharatiya Cha Parishad (BCP), one of the oldest tea planter’s organisations, and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), at present these clubs have been formed in over 24 gardens in Assam. Girls between the age groups of 10 and 18 years can become members. Even school dropouts are encouraged and are taught to read and write. Over time, the clubs have also developed into platforms for girls to raise issues like the evils of child marriage and child labour and take initiatives to address them.

Says Rupali Nayak, 17, leader of the Kanaklata Kishori Club in Dinjoye tea estate, “Earlier, I was illiterate but now I can read and write and even read newspapers.” In fact, Rupali also has a basic knowledge of child rights like the laws against early marriage and child marriage. And she even informs her juniors on how to maintain hygiene during their periods. “We could not discuss these things even with our mothers. But now we openly talk about it. I know there is nothing to be shy of,” she adds.

The genesis of the Kishori Clubs lies in a baseline survey conducted on the problems of adolescent girls living on the tea estates conducted by the BCP and UNICEF. Initial findings revealed cases of child labour (below age 14), children being married off even before they turned 18 and high school dropout rates were common in the tea community.

The tea garden workers – mostly adivasis (tribals), who were brought into Assam as indentured labour by the British – have been an exploited lot. They constitute a heterogeneous community, comprising tribes like the Santhal, Oaron, Munda, Kharia, Shawra, Bhumij, Bhil and Ho.

The UNICEF joined hands with BCP and started the initiative in 24 tea estates. “The BCP’s objective is to promote and protect the interest of the tea industry in Assam and particularly to foster the needs of its member companies and gardens. In Dibrugarh alone, BCP has more than 50 tea gardens along with eight bought leaf factories and we cover a large chunk of the tea population of the district,” says Robin Borthakur, additional chairman of BCP.

Under the joint initiative on child protection, the BCP has been carrying out activities since July 2008, both at the community- and management-level. The initiative was rolled out in phases. Starting with a sensitisation programme on child rights among the managers and welfare officers of the estates, community-level awareness meetings on child protection issues were organised. Next on the agenda was the formation of the AGCs.

The clubs were an alien concept for these girls and their families. In order to break the ice, several orientation programmes and capacity building trainings were conducted among the members where the rights of children were explained. And to add colour, innovative programmes like cultural and sports contests, life skills training, workshops on various vocational subjects like music, dancing, drawing, drama and talent search programmes were conducted in the clubs from time to time. As of now 24 such clubs have been formed with around 1,200 adolescent girls as members.

In a bid to usher in a child friendly environment within the tea estates, committees known as CPC (Child Protection Committee) have also been formed. They are made up of local service providers, guardians and influential persons of the garden like welfare officers, health assistants, health workers, teachers, members of Panchayati Raj institutions and the local youth.

These CPCs have also been trained on protection issues and child rights. They hold meetings at regular intervals to discuss these concerns and take initiatives to address them. The CPCs too are functional in all the 24 tea estates and they have implemented necessary measures to improve the condition of the children of the community, apart from looking after club activities. Mothers’ Clubs are the latest addition to this initiative and they came up in 10 tea estates in 2010, basically with the intention of empowering the women of the community.

Kishori Clubs have also added a new activity to their list. The members have now started staging plays that deal with social issues that affect them. The plot of one goes like this: A studious girl stops coming to school all of a sudden. Her friends go to her home to find out why. They meet her father who tells them that she is more of a burden to the family and will be married off soon. Then her friends explain to him the ill-effects of child marriage and manage to convince him to send her back to school. Bharati Bhumij, member of Jaimoti Kishori Club in Baughpara tea estate, says that these issues are reflected in their lives. “I have seen many of my friends getting married when they are as young as 14. Now I realise that they have met with a sorry fate,” she says.

The changes are visible. For instance, members of the Jeuti Kishori Club of Udalguri tea estate and the Jyotirmoy Kishori Club of Hapjan Purbat tea estate have opened two informal schools at their own initiative in which about 50 children have been enrolled. In another instance, members of Jalannagar tea estate in Dibrugarh district approached their Block Elementary Education Office with a list of 136 children of Jalannagar tea estate who have dropped out of school, asking for Education Centres under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan. Their efforts have borne fruit and now a centre is successfully functioning with 40 children.

Inspired by their success, Bandana Patowari, the leader of the club, now aspires to be a journalist and write about these issues.