Writer: Grieteke Meerman
Subhashini (19) was unable to stop the forced child marriage of the girl next door. But as a “youth advocate” of the Girls Advocacy Alliance (GAA), she’s been inspired to set up a local network dedicated to preventing child marriages. She wants to convince village elders, parents and local authorities of the dangers of child marriages and the importance of education.
She might be small, bespectacled and softly spoken, but make no mistake: Subhashini is a force to be reckoned with. “Eventually, I want to be a high-ranking police officer, a position from which I intend to combat child marriages,” she says from her parents’ one-room home in a farming village in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. And her ambition is not something that’s just come out of the blue. “I’ve seen so many child marriages and I think it’s now time to do something about it. It’s the biggest problem facing this region.”
The tradition of child marriage
Despite the fact that it has been against the law in India since 2006, like so many of her compatriots, until recently Subhashini simply accepted child marriage as part of the country’s tradition. She now thinks otherwise. And what opened her eyes were the efforts of a local aid organisation that prevented several child marriages in a nearby village.
Her parents, both Christians who work the land, sit peacefully alongside one another. But it hasn’t always been like that. When Subhashini was born, her father rejected her. He didn’t want a daughter because of the dowry he would later be expected to pay from his meagre income. Instead, he chose the easy option and ran, letting her mother and grandmother share the responsibility of his daughter’s upbringing. When her grandmother died, during the funeral Subhashini met her father again, who wanted to reclaim his role as a father. “I accused him of not accepting his responsibility and he replied that fresh insights had caused him to regret his decision to abandon me. He’s been living with us again for about a year now and he helps out.”
Education first, then marriage
Her father, who is not very talkative, admits to thinking that a good education is the most important thing for his daughter. “She’s not ready to get married yet,” he says. “We’d like her to finish her studies first, so she can have an independent and secure future later.”
The young girl who lived next door to Subhashini was not so lucky. At just 17-years-of-age she was recently married off to an older man and she now lives far away with her in-laws, laments Subhashini. “We tried to convince her parents to wait until she’d finished school, but they were in a hurry because they feared that their daughter was in love with another boy and would opt instead for a love marriage.”
The dangers of love marriages
A love marriage, or one that has not been arranged by the bride’s and groom’s parents, is taboo in India. Things have been changing these past 10 years, but the general consensus is still that you won’t be able to find your soul mate yourself, but your parents will. It has a lot to do with social hierarchy in Indian society, in other words, the caste system. If your son marries a girl from what is deemed a lower caste, you run the risk of being excluded from the community. Honour crimes are also often committed in these situations.
An information programme was recently rolled out in Subhasini’s village and it really inspired her. The objectives of the programme are to promote education for girls and combat child marriages, with both being seen as two sides of the same coin. Everyone became involved in the programme, both girls and their parents, she says: “Because this is the only way to start up a chain reaction of social change.”
Eradicating child marriages
As a youth advocate, Subhashini is now part of the Girls Advocacy Alliance (GAA), a joint programme that is committed to establishing equal rights and opportunities for girls and young women and which is being implemented by Plan International Nederland, Terre des Hommes, Defence for Children - ECPAT and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. By supporting local partner organisations and strengthening networks, the aim is to eradicate child marriages, child trafficking and violence against girls and young women, in India and nine other countries in Africa and Asia. The solution is to prevent economic exclusion by giving girls better access to education.
Subhashini plans to set up a network in her community that is dedicated to preventing child marriages. “In practice, this means being able to influence the village elders when necessary. And if we cannot convince them to stop a marriage, we’ll talk to the girl’s parents. If they’re not willing to listen, we’ll bring in the local authority because it is, after all, illegal. Finally, as a last measure I’ll mobilise the whole group to take the appropriate action.”
Despite not even having set up her network yet, she has already booked her first results. “In a nearby village there are far fewer girls going to school than there are here, but there are many more child marriages there. Supported by police officers and employees of an aid organisation, I have been instrumental in stopping at least one child marriage there.”