How rural girls are standing up to child marriage in India

Thanks to Landesa's innovative programme, Jasmina, 16, can teach her parents about the benefits of delaying marriage. | Photo credit: Landesa

The girls of Bal Khelar Math Takagach are fighting to remain children.

On this International Children’s Day we should take note of their struggle and recognise that it takes so little to help them succeed.

Eleven of the girls in this tiny hamlet in rural West Bengal, India, have banded together to form the “Child Marriage Prohibition Group.”

Each signed their name on a sign proclaiming the establishment of the group in the small, dark concrete government building in the center of the village.

The co-signers hope the small handwritten sign marks the beginning of a revolution here.

Penning their signature on the declaration isn’t something the girls took lightly. In this village and in rural villages like this across India, the majority of girls marry before they turn 17.

Child marriage is the norm here.

Jasmina Banu knows this all too well. Her two eldest sisters were married at 13 and 14 respectively.

Now that Jasmina is 16, the proposal offers come steadily. Her parents have received more than one dozen.

Her parents see the many benefits of marrying their daughters young. By tradition, the younger the bride the lower the dowry the bride’s family must pay the groom. So there is an economic incentive to marry a daughter young.

Once Jasmina is married off, her parents will no longer have to worry about their daughter’s future. They won’t be afraid that she’ll be left alone and unprotected after they are gone. And they won’t be criticized for having loose morals and allowing an unmarried girl to run through the village barefoot and head uncovered.

What her parents are slowly learning through Jasmina is that there are also benefits to not marrying her.

An innovative new program launched by the government of West Bengal in partnership with the land rights non-profit Landesa, is helping drive home this message.

In more than 1,000 villages across the state, more than 40,000 girls like Jasmina are attending meetings twice a month where they are learning an important lesson: they have the right to an education, they have the right to not be married off before they turn 18, and they have a right to own and inherit land. Moreover, Jasmina and girls like her are learning skills they can use to make use of that land. No space is too small to be put to use to help change their future.

Look under Jasmina’s bed and you’ll find mushrooms that she is growing. Climb up to the roof of her parents’ home and you’ll find gourd vines.

All of it grown to help supplement her parents’ income and help Jasmina earn enough money to head back to school.

In the girls’ meetings, Jasmina’s picked up language she uses to express what seemed unexplainable before: That her body isn’t ready to bear children and that she should be in school and that child marriage is against the law. And Jasmina’s made friends to help her navigate these next few years that are full of big decisions and life changes.

They share tips on gardening, and coach one another through these tricky conversations with parents about marriage. When the parents of one girl moved to marry her, all the girls banded together and formed their group to lobby the parents. 

For a while Jasmina worried that the next marriage in the village would be her own. But armed with new information about her rights, she’s changed her family’s expectations.

After two years out of school, Jasmina is now back at in the classroom. And her father now acknowledges that it would be best for all if she married later – for her and for her future children.

And Jasmina is not alone. An impact assessment of the project found that participating girls are staying in school longer, marrying later, and developing an asset of their own. The project is being scaled to reach more than 1 million girls over the next three years.

A wealth of research makes clear that delaying marriage and keeping girls in school is critical. Educated girls marry later, have fewer children, are more likely to immunize their children and are better able to support them. In fact, according to the World Bank, an extra year of secondary school boosts a girls’ eventual wages by 15 to 25 percent.

Likewise, ensuring girls understand their rights to land and can exercise them when they are women is critical to meeting a host of our most important development challenges from nutrition (children whose mothers have secure rights to land are less likely to be malnourished) to poverty (women with secure rights to land have higher savings rates).

Girls' announcement to create a "Child Marriage Prohibition Group".

Girls’ announcement to create a “Child Marriage Prohibition Group”