Winds of change in Kishanganj hamlet

Swapna Majumdar


Kishanganj, March 20(IANS) It's easy to miss Simalbari, the Santhal hamlet in Kishanganj, Bihar. The dusty track leading to the tribal community is narrow and uneven. Electricity too is a distant dream here. Yet, a change is taking place, albeit slowly and silently.

In a state where 60 percent of the girls are married before the age of 18, adolescent girls in Simalbari are beginning to stand up against early marriage, writes Grassroots Features.

When 15-year-old Radha Hemdar refused to give up her studies and get married, it sent shock waves across her community. It was hard for the illiterate tribal hamlet to understand why Hemdar was ruining her life by giving up the pportunity of marrying a 'good' boy for the sake of studies. But Hemdar remained steadfast. She has become the first woman in many generations to reach Class 9 here.

"I am studying because I want to become somebody and also because I know that early marriage is not good for my health," said Hemdar.

Inspired by her, several girls between 10-14 years here have told their parents that they don't want to give up studies for marriage till they are 18.

"Convictions like these have given us hope that our work with adolescent girls on reproductive and sexual health is finally bearing fruit," said Sayeeda Hussain, chairperson, Azad India Foundation (AIF).

But the path has not been easy for AIF, a NGO working on adolescent reproductive and sexual health (ARSH). Funded by the National Foundation of India (NFI), this project, which began in 2003 in 15 villages of Kishanganj, has seen numerous twists and turns.

One of their biggest challenges came from the Mirbhatta village in Powakhali block. A majority of Mirbhatta's predominantly Muslim population is illiterate. Girls are married young and have no control over their bodies or the number of children they give birth to.

Local religious leaders or maulanas play a crucial role in all-important decisions pertaining to the community.

"The maulana had opposed all our efforts to talk about adolescent health. He argued that young girls would become 'polluted' if informed about their bodies or talked to about reproductive and sexual health," said Parwez Raza, AIF field supervisor.

So pervasive was the maulana's influence that even his brother Qurban Ali, an influential community leader and one-time AIF ally, resisted any ARSH intervention.

But AIF workers did not give up. They just changed their strategy. Instead of talking about adolescent health, they decided to use their existing non-formal education (NFE) centres to rally parents around their cause. Ali and the other parents were invited every week to see what their children were learning.

After four weeks AIF workers asked the parents to give them a chance to talk about adolescent health if they were confident that their children would not be taught anything wrong.

It was then that Ali changed his mind. "In the beginning I was opposed to it. But after AIF explained that our children would be able to protect themselves by learning about the biological and behavioural changes that take place when girls and boys reach puberty, I realised it was wrong to resist them. I have also managed to convince my maulana brother to end his opposition," he said.

AIF was quick to realise that they could sustain the intervention only if a member of the community spearheaded the initiative. So they decided to train Ali's daughter, 17-year-old Marguba, as a peer educator.

But 55-year old AIF worker, Madhuri Das, needed more than just perseverance when she was given the duty to introduce the initiative to Mohiuddinpur village. Despite being a more affluent, educated and urbanised village, the mindset of its residents was no different from Mirbhatta's.

Here too, the maulvi was opposed to any discussion on adolescent health. But Das was adamant. "I am a follower of goddess Kali. I realised that I had to be equally aggressive if I was to succeed in my mission. So I kept at it despite the abuses and taunts. Even when some people pelted stones at me, I did not run away," said Das.

"Fortunately, the maulvi understood that what we wanted to teach the girls would help them to look after their health before they took on the responsibility of child-bearing," she added.

Once AIF was able to win over the maulvi, the 70-year-old religious leader even invited Das to hold the classes in the madrassa itself. "The Koran says that if need be one should go to China to acquire education. So why not the madrassa?" said Maulvi Gyasuddin.

However, not all religious leaders have been helpful. AIF has had to close down three of its centres because of resistance from both Muslim and Hindu religious leaders. Nevertheless, AIF believes that without religious leaders on their side, it will be difficult to make a breakthrough.

The district of Kishanganj ranks 588 out of 590 districts in the country on the reproductive and child health (RCH) index, according to a government survey of 1998-99. Although AIF's work is showing some results, they have a long way to go before they can improve the abysmal record.


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