In this district, army of schoolkids leads fight against child marriage | Mumbai News

In their crisp school uniforms, students convened in the tranquil school courtyard. With heads held high and hands raised, the school premises resonated with a collective oath, recited in Marathi: “We shall not engage in child marriage, either directly or indirectly. We shall neither endorse nor support it…”

Every Monday, this ceremony takes place in 3,657 schools across Beed where over 5.44 lakh children participate, marking a first-of-its kind effort in the drought-prone district, notorious for its high incidence of child marriages in Maharashtra.

The campaign’s impact has been palpable — many children have become informers, discreetly dialling the helpline number, 1098, and aiding the district in preventing child marriages, with some “brides” as young as 10.

“I felt it was my responsibility to act when my 13-year-old cousin was being forced into marriage. Knowing that my parents wouldn’t listen, I called the number from a friend’s phone,” said a 14-year-old student from Beed’s Kaij. The call helped authorities intervene at the right time.

Across Beed, in fact, there has been a significant increase in the reporting of child marriage prevention calls —  the district now averages 30 calls a month, a stark contrast to the two calls per month the previous year.

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The oath became mandatory in private and government schools after IAS officer Deepa Mudhol Munde took charge as the new district collector in February. The 12-line verse was originally created to sensitise Women and Child Development officers in Dhule, but was later adapted to suit Beed district’s needs. “Children and their parents migrate to cane-cutting factories from October. We launched these oath-taking programmes to sensitise them before migration, when many hasty child marriages occur,” she said.

Data collected by The Indian Express highlights the transformative impact of these new initiatives. In 2016-17, just 19 calls to report child marriage were received, which increased to 27 in 2017-18, but dropped to 17 in 2018-19. In 2019-20, this figure rose to 39. During the Covid pandemic, when child marriage incidents increased statewide, reports surged to 41 in 2020-21 and 83 in 2021-22. In 2022-23, there were 132 reported cases.

In water-scarce Marathwada’s Beed district, battling agricultural limitations, nearly half the population migrates for better income through sugarcane harvesting elsewhere. This exodus has contributed in making Beed the district reporting the second-highest number of child marriages in the state. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS 2019-20), Beed trails only behind Parbani with a 47 per cent child marriage rate. An alarming 43.7 per cent of women in Beed are wed before reaching 18, far exceeding the state average of 21.90 per cent.

The Indian Express interviewed more than 10 women who were married off before puberty, as their parents sought to protect them from sexual abuse while working in remote sugarcane cutting factories for six months during harvesting. “Local men would target us when our parents were away for cane cutting. Once, I went with them to the factory, and someone tried to rape me when I went to relieve myself in the fields,” said a 13-year-old, who was married off in 2021 and is now a mother. The incentive for married couples to earn Rs 1 lakh from sugarcane contractors or “mukadams”, which unmarried cane-cutting labourers do not receive, exacerbates the crisis.

Much like the teenager’s situation, most child marriages go unreported. While the state government is yet to entirely address seasonal migration in the face of climate change, district authorities, working with UNICEF, are trying to empower women through the SAKSHUM program, which stands for Sushikshit (educated), Anubhavi (life skill), Kushal (health), Samaan-Surakshit (gender equality and protection), Haqdaar (legal rights), Udyamsheel (skill development), and Mukt (freedom from child marriage).

The introduction of this program and the school oaths on Mondays have yielded dramatic results – between April and August 2023, 149 complaints were recorded, underlining the effectiveness of these initiatives in mobilising communities. An age-wise breakdown of preventable child marriages reveals that girls as young as 10 are forced into wedlock. Out of the 149 reported marriages, one involved a 10-year-old, three involved 12-year-olds, seven involved 13-year-olds, eight involved 14-year-olds, 19 involved 15-year-olds, 43 involved 16-year-olds, 43 involved 17-year-olds, and seven involved 18-year-olds.

“A significant number of tip-offs are originating from school children, both boys and girls. We have included the helpline number in the oath, and students have memorised it,” said Munde, adding that the caller’s identity is kept anonymous.

This has also led to an increase in the number of FIRs, reaching 13 in the same five months, whereas there was only one in the previous year and none in 2021-22.

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The district has also received cabinet approval to establish eight new residential girls’ schools. The plan is to establish one in each of Beed’s 11 talukas, providing shelter and education to vulnerable girls when their parents migrate for work.

Soniya V Hange, senior project coordinator of the project to end child marriage, which WCD and UNICEF are working together on, said: “We currently have three residential girls’ schools in three talukas, and intend to accommodate 1,600 girls in these eight new residential schools, each with a capacity of 200. This way, parents will not be compelled to marry off their daughters.”

To educate young boys about gender roles, the district, with UNICEF, holds workshops in 125 zila parishad schools. “It is aimed to dispel the perception that women alone are responsible for household chores, while men are responsible for earning. These workshops emphasise the importance of women contributing to household income and men sharing household responsibilities. They help address stereotypes,” said Hange.

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