Girls from the villages of the Lunkaransar block of Rajasthan in India have few opportunities to gather and play, let alone attend events outside of their villages.
Once a year, however, something truly exciting happens, as an event takes place that challenges gender discrimination through a celebration of the girl child. This year, from April 4th to 6th, more than a thousand girls from the Lunkaransar area gathered for the annual Balika Mela – a fair held just for them.
The Balika Mela provides an opportunity to address the severe marginalization girls face in these communities. Girls here suffer from disadvantages in access to health and education, and due to gender norms and expectations that confine them to the household, they have limited opportunities for socializing and playing with girls their age. As is the case in many patriarchal societies in which women carry low status and are perceived as an economic burden, early and forced marriage is a reality for many girls.
It must be explained to girls that they have the capability to be independent and to make money for themselves.Nisha, 18
Urmul Setu, a member of the Urmul network of NGOs working in western Rajasthan, has been organizing the Balika Mela for the past twenty years, as part of their work to end child marriage and to improve the status of girls in Indian society. The fair is a chance to raise awareness and mobilize communities and adolescent girls around issues, like child marriage, that directly affect them.
Mobilising girls & communities against child marriage
The Balika Mela is strategically held between March and April, in the lead up to Akha Teej, an auspicious day in the Hindu calendar on which thousands of child marriages take place in India each year.
At the fair, people sing, perform and deliver speeches, all for the same purpose: to increase the girls’ awareness about the consequences of child marriage and to encourage them to find and use their own voices to speak out against child marriage.
“It must be explained to girls,” says Nisha, a confident 18-year-old who attended the fair, “that they have the capability to be independent and to make money for themselves. If their parents won’t listen to them [when they refuse child marriage], then people in society who have more power should speak out on the girls' behalves.
The fair also includes presentations from role model girls and community leaders who talk about a wide range of issues, such as health and education, which are relevant to the girls’ lives. Girls hear from professionals from many different fields who encourage them to broaden their perspectives of what their own futures could hold.
Though serious issues are raised and explored at the Balika Mela, it’s also time for fun. The girls play organized games and compete in sports, including tournaments of kabaddi and kho-kho, favourite games from the villages. As players are cheered on by their peers, the competition often becomes fierce, but the games always finish with laughter and smiles.
And at the end of each day’s activities, hundreds of girls can be seen dancing together under the main tent – a wonderful and memorable image from a remarkable fair celebrating girls’ potential.
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In the time it has taken to read this article 33 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 3 seconds
The URMUL Trust, a family of grassroots organisations, has been working in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan, India for the last 25 years with the vision to empower poor and deprived communities and make them self-reliant and able to live in dignity. Visit their website.