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Bikers against child marriage

Venkat Reddy blogs about the MV Foundation‘s varied efforts to raise awareness about child marriage in India.

The calm of the remote, rural village in Andhra Pradesh, southern India, was interrupted by the roar of motorbikes. Curious villagers gathered, intrigued by the bikers who each carried a flag declaring “No to child marriage!”

It was quite a sight. Police officers, government officials and community leaders, who people were accustomed to see in much more formal circumstances, smiled and laughed as they rode their motorbikes, telling villagers that they were convinced that ending child marriage would benefit the community and most importantly, protect young girls and boys.

Persuading local officials that they can help to curb child marriage

Despite the fact that the state of Andhra Pradesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage in India, it wasn’t easy to persuade these officials that they could help to end the practice. Just months before, these same officials had been reluctant to address child marriage: “how can we intervene in people’s private lives?” The motorbike rally was the result of patient, determined efforts of our volunteers to convince them otherwise.

Without doubt our campaign benefited from the support of high profile officials. For our motorbike rally, we worked closely with the District Collector, the top civil servant in the Nalgonda region. Our volunteers shared with him the incidence of child marriages in the villages and the gruesome picture it represented for the district.

The District Collector Mr.Mukteshwar Rao, quickly grasped the issue. He told the volunteers “You are convinced; I am convinced – but what about our staff?” It would be a huge task persuading the 10,000 people employed across the district.

We can all play our part

We decided to hold ‘orientation days’ with officials across the district, who in turn held similar events with their own staff. We provided them with case studies of young girls whose lives had been affected by child marriage and prompted discussion about the role that local officials could play in preventing early marriages from taking place.

Some were reluctant to play any part, arguing that the issue had little to do with them and should be dealt with by health and education officials only. We told them that ending child marriage was a collective effort and that any efforts they could make – large or small – would help to build pressure against the practice.

We explained to the Revenue Department, for example, that Village Revenue Officials could use their crucial position in the community to convince local people that if girls were allowed to stay in school and delay marriage, they could make a greater financial contribution to their family and community in the long run. Village Revenue Officials are influential because they make announcements to the local community by banging on a small drum. As part of our child marriage campaign, we persuaded many of them to regularly bang their drum and announce that child marriage is illegal.

Mood creation

Our field team is convinced that our work to bring community officials on board as advocates for change has helped to build pressure on local communities to stop marrying off their daughters young. For us, pressure is very important – we need to show that we are serious in our efforts.

We’ve held rallies and marches, meetings and motivation drives in more than 6,000 villages to stop child marriages and over the past twenty years, the MV Foundation has stopped more than 8,000 child marriages

Venkat Reddy

But we recognise that child marriage can bring a lot of conflict to communities. One case that I particularly remember was that of a girl who married at 13 years old to a 35 year old man. It was a clear mismatch and she knew nothing of what to expect from marriage. She was sent to live with her husband and in-laws where the pressure on her to perform “wifely activities” was immense. She refused and the in-laws claimed she was non-cooperative – “a bad daughter in law” – which led to tension between the two families. I spoke to her parents who repented their decision to marry off their daughter: “we’ve lost everything – we should have listened to you!”

To overcome such tension, a big part of our work at the MV Foundation is what we call ‘mood creation’, working with everyone in the community to change attitudes towards child marriage. We carry out one-to-one counselling sessions with parents and share the stories of girls who married young. We don’t share their names, but we tell parents that “whoever had a child marriage, had a bad marriage”.

We also establish support groups for high school girls that enable them to share experiences and tell each other if they are under pressure to marry. We work with grassroots groups who work on microfinance and the broader empowerment of women and we make use of community notice boards to share messages that early marriage is harmful for children.

Saying no to child marriage: a non-negotiable principle

We feel there is no guarantee that we will be 100 percent successful in preventing child marriages. Some families still go to a temple unofficially to conduct the marriage of their children. But we think it’s becoming harder. It’s a very tough task for a family to leave a village to have a girl married in secrecy.

We believe that there are non-negotiable principles that we should work hard to enforce. For us child marriage is one such principle; we cannot justify it in the name of culture and tradition.

It is heartening to see that so many others now believe this too and are working hard to end child marriage. We’ve held rallies and marches, meetings and motivation drives in more than 6,000 villages to stop child marriages and over the past twenty years, the MV Foundation has stopped more than 8,000 child marriages. Our most recent motorbike rally helped us to identify 42 child marriages that were planned. In just two months we prevented 40 of them from taking place.

We’ve got a long way to go, but attitudes are changing. If we engage local authorities in our efforts and help to create a positive mood against child marriage in communities we can make a real difference. One day I hope that bikers waving flags against child marriage won’t be such a rare sight to see.