They look like a group of young girls out of school to join a picnic.
Twice each month, the group of 15 girls ages 11 to 18 meet on the big grassy field in front of their village primary school, sit on a tarp and talk.
There is giggling.
There is game playing.
But there is also painfully serious talk.
“Today we are going to talk about why you should not marry before you turn 18,” announced Babli Barman, an apple-cheeked 14-year-old.
This meeting, and biweekly meetings like it in more than 1,000 villages across West Bengal are part of an innovative new project aimed at curbing child marriage and empowering girls.
The majority of rural girls in India are pulled out of school and married before they turn 17.
That has devastating consequences not just for the girls (who miss out on an education), and not just for their future children (who are born underweight and sometimes premature), but also for India.
According to the Global Campaign for Education, if India enrolled 1% more girls in secondary school, its GDP would rise by $5.5 billion
Babli, along with Malika Barman, and Keya Barman (all of the villagers of Ruerkuthi-Chatrapaar share the same last name) are on the front lines of this battle. They are the “peer educators,” girls provided with intensive training and a curriculum by the department of Integrated Child Development Services, with support from the global land rights non-profit Landesa, and lead meetings with the help of an Anganwadi Worker, a government rural health worker.
During one recent meeting. Babli, Malika, and Keya rattle off their laundry list of reasons against child marriage:
“Our bones are still too fragile.”
“Our bodies are not yet mature.”
“If you become pregnant, the baby can be premature.”
“It is against the law.”
But then Laxmi Barman, a lanky 16-year-old with a serious face, asks, “But what happens if our parents force us?”
And the other 14 girls in attendance nod.
They know that most of them will not even be consulted when their parents arrange their marriage. They’ve seen it happen with older sisters, neighbors, and cousins.
Babli explains they must then speak to their mothers and provide them with the information they are learning through the project. If your mother is unconvinced, she adds, then ask the Anganwadi Worker to visit your home and help make the case.
Babli admits it is a tough road ahead for herself and the girls assembled, “Being a boy would have been better. They have freedom of movement.”
“Girls are brought up to be dependent,” adds Limpa Barman, 15. “Boys can live on their own. Girls can never do that.”
But groups like this are challenging those norms.
It is here for the first time that girls learn that they can question their parents’ intentions to marry them off early. It is here that the girls learn for the first time that they have value and that they can contribute to their home, to their community, to society. It is here for the first time that girls learn that they have a right to own and inherit land, just like their brothers.
“This is a place for us to get information, we didn’t know this information before. We don’t otherwise have access to information,” said 16-year-old Laxmi.
As part of the program, the girls learn intensive gardening skills so they can grow vegetables on the spare land around their parents’ homestead. Some grow mushrooms under their bed, gourds on the roof of their home, and vegetables on other spare patches of dirt. The food they grow supplement’s their family’s diet or can be sold at market to raise funds for school fees and allows the girls to prove their worth in tangible ways.
One year after a pilot of the project began, research has shown that participating girls benefit in a number of ways. They marry later, stay in school longer, and are more likely to have an asset of their own.
Such impacts increasingly make clear that child marriage and women’s lack of empowerment, sometimes written off as something too thorny and entrenched to address, can be challenged. And our partners for this endeavor can come from the girls themselves.
Currently, more than 40,000 girls are participating in the program. Within three years, more than one million girls across West Bengal will participate. A documentary about the project by Academy Award Winning Director Megan Mylan is launching in India on Children's Day and will be viewed by Minister Maneka Gandhi and Bollywood star Amir Khan.
“Though we are all living on land,” we could never use it before,” said Keya. “Now we all have our own gardens.”
“This will help us be independent,” added Limpa with a confident smile. “Just like our brothers.”
Watch "After my garden grows"
In the time it has taken to read this article 49 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