Moushumi Khatun, a doe eyed 13-year-old, smiles a bit nervously as she relates her story.
Four years ago, her sister Jahami, then a chubby cheeked 14-year-old, was pulled out of school and married off to an older man. Jahami, now 18, is a mother of two with dark rings around her eyes to prove it.
Next it was middle sister Tasmina’s turn. She was married off just after turning 16.
Now it is Moushumi’s turn.
Her mother is unapologetic, “I’m not comfortable keeping a daughter unmarried past 15 or 16.”
Her grandmother a moon-faced woman named Nazrun, agrees, “It is destiny. This is not in our hands. This is the way it has always been.”
They are not alone. The majority of girls in this lush but poor area of India are married before they turn 17.
This corner of India, pinched in by the mountains of Bhutan to the north and the plains of Bangladesh to the south, is a place where girls eat last and least. Where they are born underweight and remain that way for much of their lives. Where the government has to provide girls and women with regular iron pills because 99 percent of them are anemic from a poor diet.
For Moushumi and her friends, trying to get an education can seem like a fight against destiny, a battle against entrenched customs and traditions.
But a new program, a partnership between the government of West Bengal and my organization, Landesa, is offering girls the opportunity to perhaps change their destiny.
“Moushumi told me that early marriage is not healthy,” recalled her mother, Shahida Bibi.
Moushumi learned this, during one of her twice monthly girls group meetings. At these meetings, Moushumi and her friends learn about their rights to an education, to not be married off as a child, and to own or inherit land. She is also learning intensive organic gardening skills that help her grow food to feed her family and perhaps one day earn a bit of money to help the family’s finances.
The group is led by one of Moushumi’s peers and a local social worker. It was this social worker, who visited Moushumi’s house at her request to help convince her parents to allow Moushumi to continue her schooling.
The visit helped win over mother and eldest brother, Shaihidun, 18 and by virtue of his gender and age, now a decision maker in the family.
Shaihidun never had to fight to stay in school. Never had to fend off the threat of child marriage. Grandmother laughs at the suggestion and explains, “It is different. He is a boy.”
Ending child marriage is central to reducing poverty
While Moushumi’s future may seem of little consequence to anyone outside her family, it is actually central to India’s fight against poverty.
A variety of research links child marriage to a host of development challenges. And conversely, much research showing the dividends of educating girls.
Educated girls are 50 percent more likely to immunize their children and they have one-third fewer children. That can have impact for generations.
And the benefits extend beyond the family tree. An increase of 1 percent in girls’ attendance in secondary school adds .3 percent to the country’s average annual per capital income growth.
But all of this can seem of little consequence to poor parents who are dealing with far more urgent and pressing matters: the shame on the family’s name if the girl remains unmarried; the cost to the family of a higher dowry for an older bride; the terror they feel at the risk that no one will want Moushumi once she is past her prime –older than 16 or 17.
Such fears are not easily overcome. At a public meeting to introduce our project, a woman, newly elected to represent her village asks my colleagues and I incredulously, “How are we supposed to handle single teenage girls? It is not good to have girls 13, or 14-years-old girls roaming around the village unmarried.”
Men and women in the audience nodded their heads in agreement.
No lost cause: we're seeing progress on ending child marriage
It is easy to dismiss this as a lost cause. But there are a variety of programs, including ours and a project in Ethiopia by the UN Populaton Fund and the Population Council, that are showing signs of progress.
Just ask Moushumi and her best friend Beauty, both have small gardens and have been able to convince their families to keep them in school until she turns 18.
“I was very shy earlier and I couldn’t speak,” explained Moushumi. “But now I can tell people what I want and need. Before I couldn’t even speak to my parents. Now I have courage.”
Attending one of the girls groups meetings in her village, where on this particular day she learns about applying compost to her garden, and also hears a neighbour girl complain that her parents have no interest in educating her, only in getting rid of her early, so she becomes someone else's mouth to feed, Moushumi says, “I never thought I could speak up. But they taught us that there is no one will do this for us.”
“Without this group,” Moushumi said, “I would have left it to fate.”
Find out more about Landesa's efforts to empower girls and enable them to avoid child marriage.
In the time it has taken to read this article 55 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
Pinaki Halder is Landesa State Director for West Bengal, India