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.
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
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.
am studying because I want to become somebody and also
because I know that early marriage is not good for my
health," said Hemdar.
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.
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).
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.
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.
religious leaders or maulanas play a crucial role in
all-important decisions pertaining to the community.
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
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.
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.
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
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,"
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.
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.
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.
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,"
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.
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.
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