Meet the men and women fighting child marriage in Assam – The Indian Express

School-going children and the elderly made up most of the audience gathered under the pink and green shamiana pitched in the market in the small town of Kaki in Assam last week.
As two young men moved among the audience depositing black gram in their cupped hands as the afternoon’s refreshments, local leader Monwar Hussain spoke into a mic, “There are not many people who are not aware of the law against child marriage… Parents, don’t give your young daughters in marriage. Our little sisters, if you hear of a friend or classmate about to get forcefully married off, tell your teacher or quietly call 1098. If everybody and all students work together, we should be able to aim to end child marriage by 2026.”
This public meeting, organised by the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU) in an area where the population largely comprises Bengali-origin Muslims, was being held a week after 31 people from the district — Hojai — were arrested overnight in a police crackdown against child marriage. Thirteen of those arrested were men who had allegedly married underage girls and 18 were relatives booked for allegedly facilitating these marriages.
Eight months ago, in February, 219 people were arrested from the district over the course of a few days in an unprecedented crackdown on child marriage in the state.
While Assam’s punitive anti-child marriage drive has largely been viewed as affecting the state’s Bengali Muslim community, for long, campaigns such as the one AAMSU held in Hojai’s Kaki last week and community-led initiatives have worked to push back against the social problem. Not just this district, the minority union is carrying out this campaign across the state too.
On its part, at each of its meetings, AAMSU has been specifically underlining education — girls’ education in particular — as the only way forward. But they also claim to have intervened and stopped several child marriages from taking place.
Fakhrulin Islam, an AAMSU activist from Islam Nagar village in the district, said he personally intervened and stopped two marriages: one in 2019, and the other, that of a Class 9 student, last December.
“This is a matter we want to address within the community. So we try to convince families by speaking to them and counselling them. The last resort is to call the administration and the police, if all other means fail… When we first started this campaign, there was so much resentment against us. One good thing that came out of the government’s drive is that many people were thankful to us and told us that if we hadn’t intervened, they would have been in jail,” he laughed.
A provincial school in the district too has been advocating against child marriage in its own way over the past few years. Badrul Islam Beg, the principal of Doboka Higher Secondary School, said the school has been talking about child marriages during parent-teacher meetings, and health and hygiene workshops. However, he said, all efforts have been disparate and disorganised due to lack of institutional intervention.
Principal Beg added, “Ideally, there should be intervention by the (education) department so that campaigns at the grassroots level can be organised at the school level on the lines of those conducted by anti-tobacco and eco-clubs. The arrests are preventing child marriages because of fear, not awareness. At the end of the day, without awareness, young girls will still be seen as a burden by their families.”
The government, however, said it has been doing its bit to change mindsets.
Between the two punitive crackdowns against child marriages, the administration held awareness meetings and appointed Gaon Panchayat secretaries as village-level Child Marriage Prohibition Officers (CMPOs).
At Islam Nagar, Gaon Panchayat Secretary Shahabuddin said he had attended a meeting at the District Collector’s office a few months ago with other secretaries. At the meeting, he said, they had been told that as CMPOs, they should check age certificates to issue no-objection certificates for marriages in their respective villages.
However, beyond attending that meeting, it is evident that nothing much has been implemented through this new role in the village. Since no written order or notification was issued regarding the new responsibilities or duties, Shahabuddin said the panchayat too has not taken any steps towards building awareness.
At Ashinagar, a village in the same district, panchayat members said an awareness meeting had been held by block-level officials earlier this year. They said the topic of child marriage prevention is broached each time meetings are held by the department on issues like public health or education in the village.
ASHA workers too have been roped in. At the village level, ASHA workers work most consistently to spread the message against child marriage and as grassroots health workers, they also have their ears closest to the ground.
An ASHA worker in a village in Hojai district says that before the February crackdown, she attended a training session at a local hospital. Apart from spreading awareness against child marriage, she said ASHA workers were instructed to make a significant change in the manner in which they collected data.
“Earlier, while maintaining our records on pregnant women, we would just ask their age and write whatever they told us. Now, we have been told to check their Aadhaar cards and write down their date of birth instead,” she said.
And although panchayat members in her village claim they were not aware of any arrests there as part of the state crackdown, she said she knew of a family nearby who had a case of child marriage registered against them but “the husband escaped before the police arrived”.
She also knew that an underage girl married into the village had given birth at her maternal village 15 days ago, after which the police arrested members of the family.
She said, “Whether I’m conducting a vaccination session or going from house to house checking on pregnant women, I always discourage families from marrying off girls who are too young.”
But this advocacy, she said, has resulted in suspicion and wariness from the village community towards her. Thanks to the crackdown on child marriages, the community assumes that she will use the information she collects on the job to point the police in their direction.
“Not just me, even other ASHA workers operating nearby have mentioned instances of being shooed away when we go for home visits. Many people are reluctant to come to us now,” she said.
Sukrita BaruahSukrita is a reporter based in Guwahati, covering India's North East f… read more


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top
Join Whatsapp Group!
Scan the code