February 15, 2019, was a special day in history for Diyatara village, Rajasthan, when it was declared ‘girl child friendly’, with the gram panchayat vowing not to allow even a single child marriage and to put an end to this social evil forever. The panchayat of the village passed a resolution that also pledged to end discrimination against girls, treat them as an equal gender, ensure they complete Class XII and facilitate their higher education.

Diyatara village in Kolayat block of Bikaner district is the latest among 165 villages in the State that have so far resolved not to permit child marriages. It has gone further by pledging to support the cause of the girl child by creating a supportive environment for her.

Many families in this desert region marry off their daughters even before they attain puberty because of poverty, social pressures and an unwillingness to send their daughters out of the village to pursue studies.

Suman, an inspiring example

Urmul Trust has been spearheading the campaign against child marriage with the support of Plan India (international) in Bikaner, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, the three districts where child marriage takes a heavy toll on the health and well-being of the girl child. Since 2011, it has been able to stop 217 child marriages in remote villages of the Thar Desert region.

Often it is the girls themselves who have shown the grit to stand against this archaic, orthodox tradition. One story of courage is that of Suman from village Jesalsar who had the nerve to withstand family and social compulsions.

Suman was in Class VIII when pressure began to mount on the family to get her married. Determined to continue with her studies and not drop out, Suman ultimately had her way and her mother and brothers finally agreed to support her wish and be on her side. She had to be sent to her maternal uncle’s place in a village in Churu district for a year as the pressure was taking a toll on her studies.

But that was the past. Today, Suman is in the second year of her BA and is an active participant in the campaign against child marriage. Suman is proud to have made it to college, while even cousins younger than her are married. “I am determined to complete my studies,” says Suman, who travels 12 km every day to her college in Dungargarh.

Lichhma from Kalyansar Purana village was married when she was just 10 but her parents were persuaded by Urmul volunteers not to send her to her in-laws. A bright student, Lichhma is in Class XII and, like Suman, lending a hand to the fight against child marriages. Her father, Papuram Nayak, a mason, is in no hurry to send her back to her in-laws as his daughter is keen on higher education. “I am willing to spend money on her higher education even if it means sending her to a college that is several km away from our village,” he says.

“It is not an easy task to change the mindset of people,” points out Arvind Ojha, Secretary, Urmul Trust. He says that once a village is chosen, their volunteers help in forming girl clubs and youth clubs in and out of school through the panchayats and by involving school management committees, the child protection committee, parents and the villagers. Girls are also educated about their rights and laws.

Dropouts at higher risk

“But we focus more on the dropout girls,” says Ojha, as they are considered ‘high risk’ who could get trapped into wedlock before they attain the age of 18. In such cases Urmul volunteers try to convince and persuade the parents not to get their girls married at an early age. Efforts are also made to send these girls back to school if possible or arrange coaching for them so that they are able to continue their studies through open exams.

Besides this, arrangements are also made to have playgrounds in villages for girls so that they too can breathe free and enjoy their lives. However, it takes constant monitoring and keeping tabs on the child helplines to get wind of any attempted coercion by families to marry off their minor daughters. Volunteers then try to stop the marriage.

“More than the girls, the need is to counsel the women not to get their minor daughters married,” says Suman, who takes time off her studies to impart basic education to women and counsel them against child marriage, in groups of 10 to 15. This is her small contribution to end the practice of child marriage.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi