Adolescent Girls Resisting Marriage During the Covid Lockdown
The summer months between April and June are the season for arranging marriages in the State of Telangana. Friends and relatives begin to scout for girls of marriageable age -14 years and above. There are feverish negotiations between the parties for dowry, gift exchanges and scheduling of auspicious dates, and weddings are arranged and celebrated, unmindful of the girl and her aspirations and wish to study.
Changing community norms about child marriage is one of the key strategies of the Ika Chaalu project to ensure that adolescent girls can complete secondary education. Initial actions against child marriage led to tensions and resistance from the parents and families. Adolescent girls participating in the Kishori Balika Sangham (KBS) or Girls’ Committees were fully aware of the consequences of child marriage and that it was against the law. Consequently, they felt empowered to share information with their friends if there was talk in their families of their marriage being arranged. This would provide the cue to project field mobilisers to jump into action to stop the marriage with the involvement of gram panchayats, schoolteachers, women’s groups, and whoever else was seen as an active supporter of girls in the village. If the issue escalated and girls were deemed to be at risk, Childline 1098 was contacted to rescue the girl and keep her in a safe place till the parents were convinced not to go ahead with the marriage. At times, the police registered cases against those who aided and abetted child marriage.
Gradually, determined to study further and dream of higher education and beyond, girls picked up courage and began to exercise agency, even as more and more people in the community came forward to support girls’ education. By the beginning of 2020, all such practices of child marriage were part of history in the Ika Chaalu project area. Parents no longer forced their daughters to get married. Their script changed in a seamless fashion. Questions such as: who will marry our daughter; can we afford the dowry; where will the venue be; who to borrow money from to cover the wedding expenses were erased from memory to be replaced by a new set of questions such as: what is a good high school for my daughter; how far is it from our village; do we admit her in a hostel or seek admission for her in a good residential school; what is a good course for her to pursue after high school. There was no longer any pressure on the girls to get married, nor any debate on ‘why education?’ A remarkable change in norms indeed!
The lockdown due to Covid came as a big blow. With uncertainty about reopening of schools, precarity due to loss of livelihoods and income, a few stray incidents of girls’ eloping or just fears about them being sexually abused, parents of adolescent girls started arranging marriages of their daughters. The weddings took place in stealth. These were the very same parents who were full of pride that their daughters were performing well in their studies and even encouraged their pursuit of higher education.
There was resistance to the arrangement of such marriages by the girls. Members of the Girls’ Committees made phone calls to the field mobilisers and also to Childline to stop marriages. Local institutions such as the Gram Panchayats and Child Rights Protection Forums (CRPF) took a clear stand against child marriage whenever they were alerted, as they had all been sensitized on this issue in the Ika Chaalu project. For example, a field mobiliser in Nutankal received a call from a member of KBS that a girl from Yedavelli was due to be married. She contacted the Tehsildar and the Child Development Project Officer (CDPO) and along with the Anganwadi Worker and CRPF member, the officials counseled the girl and her parents and prevented the marriage.
In another instance in Pedanemila, Lalita – a field mobiliser - received a call about a proposed child marriage, but she could not make it to the venue in time. She rang Childline and persuaded a team of officials to stop the marriage. They visited the girl’s house, but her grandparents denied any plans of marriage. Even the neighbors concealed information and questioned the officials about how they could think that a wedding would be performed during the lockdown. The officials left and the girl was married after four days. This was a huge disappointment for the mobiliser as she had had been instrumental in rescuing this girl earlier from child labour and had succeeded in mainstreaming her to formal school in Class 9. “If only the schools were not closed this girl would still have been studying”, laments Lalita.
At the same time, with the power of the girls’ determination and the alliances that have been built in the community and with local functionaries, many a child marriage has been stopped during the lockdown. Gram panchayats have been asked to make announcements in the village about the laws on child marriage. Priests of all religions have been instructed to verify dates of birth before solemnizing the marriage. Indeed, in one instance, a newly married bridegroom pledged that he would encourage the girl to continue with her education! During the last weeks of May 2021, field mobilisers held a campaign against child marriage in which they met all the members of CRPFs, School Management Committees, Gram Panchayats, as well as priests, caterers, cooks and wedding venue decorators. They were all reminded about the Child Marriage Act and informed that they could be put in jail for aiding and abetting child marriage.
The following is a recent, heartening example of Ika Chaalu field staff mobilizing relevant functionaries to cooperate in stopping a child marriage in the times of the Covid lockdown:
Uma is a bold and gutsy girl who makes friends with boys easily and is fun to be with. She is quite a leader and her presence in the Girls’ Committee meetings contributed hugely to the quality of the discussions held there. She gave confidence to all the girls to open up and speak. Sometime in February 2020, her uncle complained to her parents that her behavior had to be checked as it was rumored that she had “loose morals”. Uma was promptly reprimanded by her parents and she was stopped from attending the Girls’ Committee meetings. Her parents began to control her mobility and put her under watch. In the meantime, the lockdown was announced, and she isolated herself. The field mobiliser – Dhanamma - noticed that Uma changed a lot, she was quiet, cried a lot and would not talk. With counselling and a great deal of probing, Uma revealed that she might not be able to continue with her studies after 10th grade. Dhanamma then met her parents a couple of times and convinced them that Uma was a fine girl, they should be proud of her, and she was good at her studies. She helped Uma to get admission in high school (11th grade) in Suryapet town. Through the lockdown in 2020, Uma went with her mother to work on cotton seed and chilli farms and at the same time attended online classes. It seems all was well till her aunt visited them with a proposal of marriage. Uma resisted fiercely and said that she had nothing against the boy but would like to get married only after completion of her graduation. Given the unpredictability of colleges or schools reopening in the near future, her arguments for pursuing education fell on deaf ears. Dhanamma got to know about the engagement from Uma’s friends in the Girls Committee and found out that the wedding was going to be fixed for the second week of May 2021 and that the family were going to meet the priest to fix an auspicious date and time for the wedding. Dhanamma contacted the Sarpanch, who in turn called the priest and warned him against fixing a date and solemnizing the marriage. When the girls’ parents arrived in the priest’s house, he asked them to wait. He immediately called Dhanamma, who called Childline for help. In an hours’ time all the relevant functionaries arrived in the priest’s house. They warned the parents against printing invitation cards or going ahead with the wedding. The Supervisor of the Anganwadi (employed by the department of Women and Child Welfare and officially in charge of the well-being of adolescent girls in her village) was instructed to visit Uma’s home every other day to see if she is safe and has been told that she will be held accountable should Uma get married.
Could the above series of actions lead to a backlash from the community? Could Uma face sanctions and punishment for exercising agency in defiance of power relations in the family and for exposing her parents to public insult and humiliations? It is our experience that the process of building a social norm is one of resolving conflicts. The success of the project lies in the manner in which the conflicts are resolved. The field staff are trained to follow up with the parents, have a continuous dialogue with them and help them to reconcile to the new reality. Gradually parents come to be convinced that they made the right decision. Others in the community - those who took a stand in favor of the girl and those who opposed it are also contacted. This process eases the tensions and indeed helps in vocalizing the support for girls’ education and their rights. The presence of functionaries and the law enforcing institutions gives legitimacy and a stamp of authority to the entire process of stopping a child marriage. To get them to this stage of commitment is again a process of interface with project staff, the community and the girls themselves. From initial indifference to the issue, the functionaries of the state begin to take pride in the transformation their actions make to the lives of girls. It is in this environment that girls get the courage to act without fear of reprisals, and the agency of the girls reinforces the rest of the community to take a stand.
In times of massive crises, as in the case of the pandemic lockdown, the structural inequities in the system get reinforced. It seems patriarchy is a stubborn and default norm. Yet, it is heartening to see that the efforts of the Ika Chaalu project in building a social norm towards gender equality and girls’ education is not completely lost, nor totally reversed. With girl power and its voice, and the functionaries of the state acting in unison, there is hope.