PURULIA, India 24 January 2019 –Twelfth grader Kiran Bauri woke up early on the National Day of the Girl Child, hopeful and excited. Later that day, she joined 500,000 other girls and women, pouring onto the streets, joining hands to form a 348 km long human chain. The chain started at the center of the District’s main town and extended further beyond the outskirts as more and more women joined. Just one girl wasn’t there, Kiran’s best friend, Karuna.
Last year, when Kiran discovered that Karuna (name changed to protect identity) was forced into marriage, she took a risk and reported the case to police.
When she first found out that Karuna was going to be married, Kiran alerted other members of the adolescent Kanyashree Club she’s a member of called ‘Swapnadisha’ (Path of Dreams) that aims to prevent child marriage and ensure girls stay in school. Together the girls went to see Karuna at home.
The next day Kiran and her friends along with their teacher informed the Panchayat (village council) who tried to convince Karuna’s parents to stop the marriage. But they refused.
“Karuna was dejected because her parents had already paid dowry. They also have two younger daughters to marry,” recalls Kiran. “But, with my friends from the Swapnadisha club, I was determined to stop this marriage at any cost.”
Kiran became restless as the wedding day drew closer. “I don’t understand why girls are considered as burdens to their families. This is not right, it must change,” she says.
While Karuna was feeling helpless and sad on the morning of her wedding day, Kiran decided to go ahead report to the police. The local police and government authorities landed up at Karuna’s place and her parents did not have any choice but to cancel the wedding.
“We were so happy to stop the marriage,” says Kiran. “I was a little nervous to go to the police, but I had to do it to save my friend.”
Karuna went on to complete her school education and is currently studying in college. That’s why she was not able to join the chain. Her best friend Kiran continues to advocate against child marriage and for girl’s education.
In many rural communities, child marriage is more a social norm than an aberration in the eyes of parents who see little value in investing in their daughters’ education.India has the largest number of child brides in the world — one third of the global total. Despite a steady decline in rates of child marriage rates, still, there is a long way to go.
“Many parents often marry their daughters at early age because they feel it is in their best interest,” shares Swapnodipa Biswas, UNICEF Child Protection Officer. “In addition, the dowry system still is very common in most parts of the country.”
In the dowry system the bride's family gives cash or an in-kind gift to the bridegroom and his family, as a condition of the marriage. The dowry amount increases with the age and the education level of the girl. Hence, the “incentive” of the system of dowry perpetuates child marriage even further.
UNICEF in collaboration with the Government of India is working to end child marriage in West Bengal and across all states in India. The support includes capacity building of law enforcement and government officials as well as community level engagement with influential community leaders and the media.
Through the Adolescent Empowerment Programme, UNICEF encourages adolescent girls like Kiran to mobilize and engage other girls like themselves in their schools and communities through Kanyashree Clubs and learn and support each other. Creating a social network empowers girls to raise their voices against any child rights violation, including child marriage.
At present, Kiran is studying hard for her board exam which is due in February this year. For the time being, she puts aside playing Ludo, a board game which she likes playing with her older brother Chalam.