India Interior

Light at the end of the tunnel

Swapna Majumdar | Updated on November 29, 2019 Published on November 29, 2019

Now a micro entrepreneur, Ganeshi Meghwal recounts her struggle with child marriage and violence

Namaste, mera naam Ganeshi hai. Do saal pehle, jab main 15 saal ki thi, meri shadi zabardasti kar diya gaya.” (Greetings, my name is Ganeshi and I was forced to get married two years ago when I was just 15).

When Ganeshi Meghwal, 17, introduces herself, her voice is loud and clear and her eyes brim with confidence. For a rural girl in Rajasthan, who was forced to remain with an abusive husband, twice her age and an alcoholic, to keep her family’s reputation intact, this is a big change.

It was this confidence that catapulted her from Odo ka guda, a small tribal village, to the world stage, at the recently concluded International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD+25) in Nairobi to share her story of turning her life around.

Dressed in her traditional colourful Rajasthani attire and jewellery, Meghwal won the admiration and hearts of the conference audience with her inspiring journey of overcoming depression and the trauma of facing domestic violence to becoming a micro entrepreneur, making and selling electric bulbs. She also learnt how to repair small electrical home appliances.

“People say that this is a man’s job. But I say girls can do anything, provided they are given the opportunity and training. People taunt me and my family. But I don’t listen. I didn’t give up and worked hard to change my life. This has brought me to the ICPD+25 Summit. I’m happy that the world is listening to me and I could break the myth that girls couldn’t and shouldn’t be doing such jobs,” contended Meghwal.

Ironically, this transformation may never have taken place had Meghwal not been beaten black and blue by her husband and sent back to her parents’ house. “I didn’t want to get married. But I had no choice. My parents would have had to pay compensation if I had broken the marriage. However, when I returned home to my parents after being thrashed badly, I decided I wouldn’t go back to my husband irrespective of the repercussions,” said Meghwal.

In India, 27 per cent of girls are married before their 18th birthday and 7 per cent are married before they turn 15. The country has the highest absolute number of child brides in the world (15,509,000) with one in three of the world’s child brides living in India, according to Unicef. Statistics also show that one in three women have faced some form of violence.

Meghwal knew that her decision to leave her abusive marriage would change her life. She also realised that having taken this bold step would mean nothing if she could not take charge of her life. She did not want to be a burden on her family. “My father works in a sweet shop in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, and he is the sole breadwinner. My mother tills our small piece of land. We eat what we grow and there isn’t enough to sell. I have two younger siblings. So, I wanted to do something to earn money but since I had dropped out of school in Class 8 when I got married, I did not have the knowledge or the skills to earn a living,” shared Meghwal.

Fortunately for her, it was around this time that the cluster coordinator of Jatan Sansthan, a Rajasthan-based not for profit, was trying to identify adolescent girls for their Hilor programme. Implemented in partnership with UNFPA and the State Government Department of Women and Development, Rajasthan, the Hilor Action for Adolescent Girls (AAG) programme aims to empower out-of-school unmarried and married adolescent girls in the 10-19 age group.

“Our programme uses various targeted interventions to build the confidence, knowledge and skills of these adolescent girls so that it can help in delaying marriage and child-bearing and prevent unintended pregnancy. We form adolescent girls’ clubs first and through these we share information on health, social and economic issues. We link them to education and skill development programmes through exposure visits. We also develop their leadership skills. Some of these girls become our peer educators and facilitate sessions to empower other adolescent girls with the help of the accredited social health workers (ASHAs) and anganwadi workers (AWWs),” revealed Payal Sharma, programme manager, Hilor.

Inspiring peer educator

Meghwal’s determination to change her life and ability to inspire others soon made her a peer educator. Even though she gets no remuneration, Meghwal enjoys being a peer educator. “Being a part of the adolescent group helped to bring my confidence back and I learnt a lot about my health, and how education and skill development could give me the courage to stand on my feet. I experienced it and wanted to share this with other girls like me. It also gives me an identity,” she said.

As a peer educator, Meghwal pays special attention to managing menstrual hygiene and busts misconceptions regarding not being able to touch the pickle or going to the temple during menstruation. “I also didn’t know why it happens. I learnt it after being a part of the programme. It helped to clear many doubts. This is something that every girl needs to know to be safe and healthy,” pointed out Meghwal.

She also stresses the importance of becoming economically independent. She shares her own experience of how being linked to training from the Ajeevika Bureau helped her open a bank account. “I sell around 40 bulbs in a month and earn about ₹2,000. I also repair appliances. I received ₹600 for the first appliance I repaired. It made me very happy. I have a bank account now. I don’t have to depend on anyone. It was because I refused to accept domestic violence that I could change my life. There are many girls like me who have not been able to stand up against violence. I want to share my story so that they can understand that it is possible to do something with their lives if they have the will and the skills.”

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi

Published on November 29, 2019
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