India Interior

‘No shaadi before shiksha’

Swapna Majumdar | Updated on February 22, 2019 Published on February 22, 2019

Ram Asarey Swapna Majumdar

Faith leaders at the Kumbh Mela

Faith leaders help promote gender equality during the Kumbh Mela

Every morning, before sunrise, Ram Asarey reaches the Arail Ghat in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh. He then readies his small boat and awaits devotees wanting to take a holy dip in the Sangam, where the three rivers converge. With the number of bathers more than doubling during the ongoing Kumbh Mela, Asarey has no time to waste.

After several trips, Asarey’s attention is suddenly caught by the group of spiritual leaders, many of them women, gathered at the ghat. As he rows his boat to get a closer look, he hears them talk about how child marriages need to end as the practice could be fatal for girls.

Immediately, his mind goes back to the fateful day 10 years ago when his teenage daughter died while giving birth to her first child. “If I had known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have forced marriage on my daughter,” says 50-year-old Asarey, as tears roll down his face.

Asarey is not the only one who married his daughter young. One in every five girls in Uttar Pradesh is a child bride, according to the National Family Health Survey. Whether it is lack of awareness or compelling economic and social conditions that push early marriages, over two million girls in the 10-19 age group in the State are married.

Health risks

“Research tells us that a teenaged pregnant girl is five times more likely to die in childbirth. It is criminal to get children married at an age when their bodies are unprepared for motherhood. But customs and traditions perpetuate this illegal practice. This is why we invited religious leaders from all over the country to come to the Kumbh Mela and break the silence on child marriage. The Kumbh mela is a great opportunity to spread awareness on the empowerment of girls,” states Swami Chidanand Saraswati, spiritual head of the Rishikesh-based Parmarth Niketan Ashram.

Organised by Parmarth Niketan, Global Interfaith WASH alliance (GIWA) and UNICEF, the two-day meeting held recently at the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj saw faith leaders from different parts of the country, many of them women, discuss ways to end child marriage.

“We wanted to draw a roadmap of how we could take this forward in our areas of influence. Faith can move mountains. So why can’t it end child marriage and push for gender equality? Spiritual leaders have come together like the Sangam to take a sankalp (pledge) of no shaadi (marriage) before shiksha (education),” says Sadhvi Bhagwati Saraswati, Secretary General, GIWA.

A promise for change

Faith leaders play a critical role in enabling a positive environment within families, communities and schools to end child marriage and gender discrimination, contends Alexandra Westerbeek, Chief of Communication, Advocacy and Partnerships, UNICEF. “India is the only country, apart from Tonga, where more boys under the age of five survive than girls of that age. Girls in India are more likely to be married early compared to boys. Faith leaders can help to promote gender equality and end child marriage.”

Mahant Divya Giri, head of Mankeshwar temple, Lucknow, agrees. “People listen to faith leaders. They may not listen to governments and NGOs. But they will listen to spiritual leaders. So, we must use our influence to lead them on the right path and prevent them from stealing the childhood of girls,” she says.

This is the message that Archana Gaur wants to give her family. Gaur, who travelled from her village in Prayagraj district to hear the religious leaders at the rally in Kumbh, was married when she was 15. “I was not allowed to study after Class VIII. My father forced me to marry. I could not pursue my education as I became pregnant within a year of marriage. When I became ill, the doctor told me that I was too young for motherhood. I had no knowledge about family planning and could not stop pregnancy. But I will not allow my daughter to get married before she completes her education,” declares Gaur.

This is why she also brought her mother-in-law Ranno Devi to the public meeting. Gaur wanted her mother-in-law to listen to the faith leaders and understand there was no religious sanction for child marriage. Then, she would stop putting pressure on Gaur to get her daughter married.

This turned out to be a good move. Devi, who stepped out of her home for the first time for such an event, was inspired by the messages given by various faith leaders. “I have never heard so many religious leaders speaking on the importance of education and equal opportunities for girls and boys. Listening to the religious leaders has helped me understand that the tradition we followed in getting girls married as children is wrong. I will not stop my granddaughter’s education or insist on her marriage before she turns 18,” promises Ranno Devi.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi

Published on February 22, 2019
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