The Thar Desert boasts of unique geography, history, diverse people, and their culture. Historically, the landscape had to grapple with its challenges. The remoteness and isolation have resulted in its peripheral development of communities. The people have not been able to fully reap the benefits of modern India’s growth story. The western region of Rajasthan fares poorly in all the human development indicators. However, these struggles and challenges should be looked at as opportunities that remain untapped and could be addressed through focused efforts. Through these harsh conditions, the land, life, and living of the desert remain invincible.
For decades, the practice of child marriage has ravaged childhoods and deprived them of leading dignified lives. This practice adversely impacts the lives of young brides who are made further exposed to sexual, psychological, and emotional violence. UNICEF and Urmul Trust realising the violation of the well-being of children in the desert districts of Bikaner and Jodhpur launched efforts under the Leveraging and Advocating for Adolescent Developmental Opportunities (LAADO) programme to effectively combat this practice. Multi-pronged efforts in the programme focused on empowering adolescents, enhancing awareness levels of the community, and leveraging the support of state institutions to effectively combat this practice.
Under LAADO, our key drivers of change were motivated by these principles towards creating an environment that does not support and tolerate child marriage.
Adolescent girls and boys become agents of change for themselves and communities. They possess the information, skills, and support networks to express and make choices regarding their lives. They develop the means to protect themselves from violence exploitation and harmful practices.
Parents and communities create a protective environment and demonstrate positive attitudes and behaviors toward investing in and supporting girls and boys.
Relevant service delivery professionals systems can scale up quality and effectively meet the needs of adolescent girls.
Strengthening information management system applying new technology for data and evidence to inform program design, track progress and document lessons.
Advocacy with various partners for state legal and policy frameworks protect the rights of adolescents.
Ensuring that the communities are organically onboarded with these views and do not feel pressured to accept.
Legal age for marriage in India1
of the world’s child brides live in India 2
young women were married or in union before their 18th birthday2
child brides in India of the country’s 223 million brides were married before turning 152
women aged 20-24 years married before age 18 years in Rajasthan3
men aged 25-29 years married before age 21 years in Rajasthan3
Child marriage is a complex issue with a myriad of implications from both the gender and child rights perspectives. Child marriage is defined as a union where either one or both parties are under the legal age of marriage. In India, it means girls below 18 years of age and boys below 21 years of age (Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006). The latest decadal census estimates nearly 17 million children in the age group of 10-19 years to be married. The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act introduced in 2006 defined child marriage as marriage in which either the girl or the boy is underage, i.e., the girl is under 18 years of age or the boy is younger than 21 years.
Child Marriage denies a child the basic rights to education, good health, and nutrition. Different studies have indicated that early marriage makes girls more vulnerable to sexual abuse, violence, and exploitation. For both girls and boys, marriage has a strong, physical, intellectual, psychological, and emotional impact, cutting off educational opportunities and chances of personal growth.
The impact of child marriage is adverse for both the sexes but it has been noted that its consequences are much more stark for girls as compared to boys. It curtails the freedom of choices and opportunities about their life. The reasons behind child marriage in India vary by region, caste, and tribe and require specific contextual analysis. Across the state, culturally and socially, the low value attached to daughters plays a significant role in this appalling practice.
Our team spearheading COVID awareness interventions
Under the LAADO program, the Urmul team has been tirelessly working with adolescents, communities and other stakeholders to prevent child marriage in Bikaner and Jodhpur districts. The team has come a long way in this journey to ensure that the rights of children are not compromised and that they receive opportunities to lead dignified lives. Even as the current pandemic poses challenges to the progress achieved by our team, we are now more than ever motivated to convert these bottlenecks into endless opportunities for our young minds. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have remained connected with our community members and guided them to follow hygienic practices. We even distributed masks to the adolescents who came from families with scarce resources.
The team through continuous efforts, identified children who had dropped out of school with the aid of community members. They were motivated to register for the Rajasthan State Open School so they could complete their schooling.
Using technology to combat child marriage
“Are you continuing with your studies during lockdown?”, asked Bhanwari on a Zoom call that she and her team had organised for ten teenage girls. Her question was met with reluctant affirmations. Bhanwari is a block coordinator in Lohawat block, Jodhpur district and has been working on preventing child marriage in western Rajasthan for the last few years. In her experience, the strongest measure to do this is to ensure that children are enrolled in school and that they do not drop-out.
With the shutting down of schools due to the nationwide lockdown, Bhanwari was scared the number of cases of child marriage would increase, more than ever before. Worried that they would lose out on all the progress they had achieved, Bhanwari and her three colleagues—Jyoti, Parveen, and Pramila—decided to quickly revise their community mobilisation strategy.
A few weeks into the lockdown, they started organising conference calls with the children from the districts of Bikaner and Jodhpur. Soon, they decided to move to video calls via Zoom, since they found that the children were less engaged in discussions via conference calls. The team felt that using video would ensure that the children—who were used to in-person discussions—did not feel distant.
In 2015, Sushma Barupal was the first female Sarpanch of the newly formed Jaisalsar gram panchayat. She had completed her educational training in Bachelor’s in Education and amongst the female Sarpanchs was the one to possess the highest level of education. Since her election, she was passionate about working towards enhancing the education levels of girls, preventing child marriages, and motivating the children to complete their schooling. Within her panchayat, there was a school only till the eight grade. Through her efforts, she was able to extend the schooling till twelfth grade in that school. Urmul Trust by collaborating with Sushma under the LAADO programme was able to work towards the prevention of child marriages in her panchayat. Her efforts were lauded by national media and by UNICEF as well. The combined efforts of all the agencies involved are a testament to how the persistence of motivated individuals could save the childhood of so many young children.
Priests play a vital role in all the functions of marriage or even naming a newborn child. The programme team was aware of the pivotal role they play in our religious practices and actively worked towards involving them in awareness activities. When the team first approached Amalkharam he was reluctant to support the cause and said he could do little in preventing the practice. But, the LAADO programme team consistently worked towards convincing him about the perils of child marriage on the lives of young children and the legal provisions that ban this practice. Through the course of the discussions, he publicly vowed to never conduct weddings of any underage children and encouraged girls to complete their schooling.
Maya, is a resident of Gawan Pabunagar of Munjasar village. Maya is the eldest among her brothers and sisters. Despite the passion to continue studies, her parents asked her to discontinue her studies. She vowed that she would not allow this to happen to her siblings. Meanwhile, since the inception of the Laado project, Maya has pledged to promote girl child education and child marriage prevention. Maya is participating in regular meetings of Balika Manch and motivating other girls of the village to join the group. Maya has convinced her parents to allow her to complete her education and she has registered for tenth class from the Rajasthan State Open School Board. Through her persistent efforts, all of Maya's brothers and sisters are studying regularly.
When she passed class eight examinations, Bhanwat’s family refused to teach her further. She was joined by a few other girls from the same village to explain to their parents the importance of education and request them to allow them to continue their education. For this, we continued our efforts to convince our family members for two-three months continuously by taking the help of LAADO team, nurses, Anganwadi workers and teachers. In the end, they won the fight. Their family agreed to their education. At present, she is a member of my village's LAADO Balika Manch. On receiving information about the marriage of a girl in the village, Bhanwati along with the other members of Balika Manch prevented a child marriage by convincing the family members.
Kavita hails from a family with meagre means of resources. Due to rampant poverty, most of the girls in the village are married off at a tender age. Kavita had to go through a similar challenge. With the initiation of the LAADO project, her courage got a new impetus and she decided that she would not allow any girls in her village to go through the same experience. Realizing the importance of sports with education, Kavita discussed with the Sarpanch to prepare a ground for girls' games in the locality and motivated all the girls of the group to play the game. Today, 30 girls in her village are regularly playing regular sports like Kabbadi, Kho-Kho, and Volleyball. Kavita's dream is to organize sports competitions for the girls of her village so that girls get equal rights. Kavita took the path of making the lives of other girls better.