I am Soma Pramanik and I am 13 years old. I am studying in Class VII. Three years back when I was a student of Primary school I learnt so many things from my mother. These include doing household work, cooking, working in paddy field, sowing, fetching water to cultivated field, boiling paddy to make rice, etc. In fact this is what we all village girls learn from our mothers during our childhood - we have to learn how to do housework. But many girls have not learnt what I have learnt from going to high school. I have learnt a lot about health and hygiene.
I, like all village girls, had been using old and dirty cloths during our menstruation periods. We did not have any other options. We used to wash these clothes secretly in the polluted unclean ponds so that nobody could see them. After washing we used to dry them in unhealthy places secretly. During these five days every month, we had to miss school because wearing the same cloth from 9.30 am till 6.30 pm was extremely painful. We had to wear the same one because there weren’t any clean cloths or places to change them. This mean that we used to lag behind in our studies and couldn’t get good results in the examinations.
We now have come to know about napkins which are use-and-throw, very hygienic and user friendly. I talked with my mother also about these napkins. Our school does not have any changing rooms. Rather, the toilet that we have in school is very small and if I stay inside for a minute, friends start knocking the door. It is very busy. I have heard that even the government schools do not have this facility. They even do not have dustbins. Project staff demanded to the schools to do something about it. I have heard from Runa one of my friends who studies in Kastekumari high school that their school has the facility of a changing room and the school supplies them with napkins. We then went to their school and experienced the same. The project then demanded that school should do something and provide napkins. During the Durga Puja holidays, I had been to my uncle’s house on outing, and had discussed the matter with my cousins and aunt. This learning on menstrual hygiene has been of great help for me and my school friends. We hope that our school will soon provide facilities of changing rooms, napkins and sanitary bins, which will help us to avoid missing school every month. Also, with the help of social workers now we have a sanitary bin at home. My mother made it and it did not need any cost. It is portable and we can take it to the backside our house and use it. My mother is so intelligent. But she told that she learned this from me. I am proud.
Madina Khatoon is ten years old. She has 3 brothers. Her father died of Tuberculosis when she was seven years old. Her father was a daily wage earner and they all lived in a dilapidated hut. Her father did not leave any money for them to survive upon. Madina’s mother, Tazmira Bibi does not have any skills to earn. This family was struggling for survival.
The family were forced to go without food for periods. Tazmira managed to discuss her problems with some of the Nishtha staff. The staff immediately arranged some food for the family, but was aware that this wasn’t a sustainable solution to the family’s problems. They thought that a creative way for Tazmira to be able to help herself and her family would be if they taught her how to make the recycled paper bags that Nishtha train girls in. The staff also contacted the local grocery shop and arranged for them to buy the bags that Tazmira would produce. After some time, Tazmira had some capital in her hand to run her business on her own. Tazmira is carrying on with her business for nearly two and half years. Now she is stable and whenever she faces any financial constraint, the shop keepers arranges for old newspapers on credit, which she uses to make the bags. Through this, she is able to fully meet the basic needs of her family.
I was pleased to come across this story on the Guardian Online (http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/mar/03/ending-child-marriage-india-health/print).
By supporting this project, you are helping girls like Sughandha.
Sugandha is conducting a session on raising awareness about the perils of child marriage among a group of schoolgirls. They listen with rapt attention to the didi (elder sister) they all admire. Sugandha came back to school after being married and then thrown out of her in-laws' home when her first-born died.
"Right now I work as a peer educator for a programme called Youth for Change. We arrange meetings and inform people about the ill effects of early marriages. Moreover, we have been successful in stopping a few child marriages," she says proudly.
Sugandha lives in Uttar Pradesh – one of the largest states in India – where 40% of girls are married before the age of 18, according to the District Level Household and Facility Survey – 3. Uttar Pradesh is among the top five states in India when it comes to rates of child marriage. Development indicators are among the lowest, and poverty, gender discrimination and migration have a big impact on child marriage and on the health of girls and young women.
Many rationalizations are made for marrying girls young, even though the marriage of those under 18 has been illegal since 1929, ie since the era of the British rule in India.
"My father died when I was quite young. Because of this there was pressure from the village, which forced my mother to get me married at a young age. I was very young – I couldn't say anything, I didn't understand," says Sugandha.
Despite new provisions having been made under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006, under which a child marriage prohibition officer must be in place at the local level, implementation is weak. The officer must ensure no child marriages takes place in their jurisdiction by approaching the courts for an injunction, collecting evidence against people, creating awareness about the negative effects of child marriage, and collecting data concerning child marriages, among other functions.
However, the elected village head in Sugandha's village said: "I have heard that child marriage is an offence but I have not read the law yet. Even now child marriage is taking place, because people say that a girl is someone else's property, therefore she should be married as soon as possible so she goes to her "own" home. I'm faced with a situation where if I take any action against them, the villagers will be up against me. So even if I know, I think it's best that I keep quiet."
Despite an awareness of the law, and of the consequences of child marriage on the sexual and reproductive health of girls and young women, the gender disparity and a disregard for women in society means there is a lack of political will to see the law to its execution at the grassroots. According to Unicef's State of the World's Children Report 2007: "Premature pregnancy and motherhood are an inevitable consequence of child marriage. Girls under 15 are five times more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth than women in their 20s."
In another district of Uttar Pradesh, closer to the Indian capital, New Delhi, a group of boys and young men are listening to another peer educator talk about sexual and reproductive health. One of the young men tentatively raises his hand to ask, "Every time I have sex with my wife, she falls ill. Why is that?"
Not only is pregnancy a big concern for girls who have been married young, but also the act of sex has not been demystified and remains an unpleasant act at best, or worse, an act of violence. Girls and young women's sexuality is denied all their lives and then they are suddenly pushed into a marital relationship where they are expected to satisfy their husbands and prove their fertility.
The law also puts the onus for prevention of child marriage on the person performing the ceremony. However, the priest in Sugandha's village said, "We have not received any guidelines or any rules [on the Child Marriage Act], but I can tell you that marriage should be when the girl is 18 or over, when she is ready to understand and mature enough to shoulder responsibilities. [But] every year we perform five to eight marriages where they are below 15 or 15 to 16 years old. Even now we'll be doing so – the dates are booked."
The International Planned Parenthood Federation considers child marriage to be a human rights violation. Ending child marriage is essential to make progress towards international and national development goals, including the millennium development goals.
Mina, project leader on the ground explains the crucial role that volunteers of Nishtha play in delivering the project’s activities – their struggle, determination, courage, and the fruits of their efforts. In Mina’s own words -
"They have taken action to improve their environment, speak up against violence, and advocate for their rights. The women’s groups (Called Mahila Mandals) have mounted successful campaign against violence and alcoholism and have promoted community participation in all aspects of village decision making. These grass root groups have broadened the social network. The members of the groups, majority of whom are illiterate vegetable vendors and agriculture labourers, maid servants, and of whom a large number had sustained torture and humiliation everyday in their life; have not only brought themselves out of darkness, but have also given relief to fellow victimised women and brought them to light too.
Nishtha volunteers have built up groups of volunteers on different age group. The members of these groups are trained and oriented on various aspects to fight injustice against women and girls. As a result of four-tier pyramid groups and their grass root level work there has been significant reduction of reported cases of violence, atrocities and gender based discrimination against women.
Over the decades Nishtha has been working with the ever deprived girl children and women of the society. There are signs of improvement and changes. The poor women, members of the volunteer groups have to starve if they do not work for a day, have to work for 15 to 16 hours a day to earn two square meals. These women with their sincere love and devotion are putting their efforts to save the lives of their fellow deprived and tortured sisters. These women have never received any appreciation or recognition from any level; they do not expect recognition either. But these volunteers are the real ‘Heroes of the Day’ to us and to the victim women who received support and help from them."
I asked Mina, the leader of the project what exactly Nishtha does on the ground - a lot more than I had previously understood. Mina gave me a detailed insight, in her own words, of what is happening on the ground:
Our organization Nishtha is a community based women’s organization which was born in the mid-seventies. Since then, its aim has been to empower women on their rights and empowering them to demand such rights.
NISHTHA’s focus of activities have been around education, especially for the girl children, Anti trafficking programme, Health & Nutrition programme, Formation of groups, Income Generation, free legal aid to victims of domestic violence, Night shelter for sex workers children, Sustainable Agriculture and women, Advocacy and campaign, women’s rights on safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene education.
Nishtha presently works in more than 300 villages in 5 blocks in the District of South 24 Parganas and Malda Districts of West Bengal. The programmes of Nishtha have made it a participatory resource centre for community women, youths and elderly. In brief, a few major areas of activities are:
q Ensure every girl child to study in formal schools and do not drop out.
q Support the girl students with learning materials, Tuition fees, etc. and monitor their Progress.
q Vocational Training for girl children and young housewives.
q Income generation programme for the members of village women’s grups.
q Health clinics for adult, adolescents and aged women.
q Nutrition Program — including supply of nutrition rich food.
q Training and awareness on general and reproductive health, hygiene, sanitation, and environment.
q Drinking water and toilet and sanitation facilities to schools, individual households and communities.
q Awareness generation on safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene.
q Formation of WATSAN Committees under leadership of women.
q Sexuality and Reproductive Health Program for the youth and newlywed couples.
q Training in sustainable agriculture to all members of farmer families to optimize food production, reduce use of chemical pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Adolescent volunteers act as promoters of bio-diversity.
q Establishing women’s rights over fixed assets and their right to be recognized as a farmer.
q Advocacy and campaign against violence and discrimination of women and girl children.
q Provide free legal support to victims of violence.
q Different BCC activities on child trafficking, child marriage and teenage and unwanted pregnancy, high rate of dropout amongst girl children,, domestic violence, etc. Special BCC activities are carried out on the problems on elderly women.
q Day Boarding and Night Shelter for Sex Workers’ children
q Putting up fight against domestic violence and child marriage and social and legal rehabilitation of the victims.
q Advocacy and campaign on the problems of the affected women and girl child of the land eroded areas by the side of river Ganga in Malda district.
q All through the year, Nishtha conducts trainings on different issues and subjects for different group viz. group leaders, volunteers, group members, staff, farmers, representative of other organizations, etc.
Your support is what is enabling Nishtha to carry our all of these activities.
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