Deepanjali Patra was only 16 when her parents started persuading her to get married.Child marriages are a norm in the Gond community of Odisha. Patra, who hails from Borbhata village in Kalahandi district, around 400 km away from Bhubaneswar, had seen her school friends getting married since she entered high school. Her parents, who are farmers owning about three acres of land, also belonged to the conventional school of thought that if girls remained unmarried beyond the age of 16-17, they might fall in love with somebody and that would bring shame to the family and community.
“My parents didn’t talk to me directly about marriage. It’s usually your siblings who tell you that the parents have found a nice match and that you must get married,” says the 21-year-old who has two elder brothers. She tells MAKERS India in a telephonic interview that while she was forced to get married at 16, her oldest brother got married at 25 and her second brother at 30.
“My parents never asked me about my preference on the day the proposal came. I wanted to study and since I am stubborn, I told my mother that I didn’t want to get married,” she recalls.
“When girls start to menstruate, they are forbidden from doing any household work or stepping out of their houses for seven days. People believe that girls will be condemned if they step out”
Messenger of social change
Around the time when Patra was still trying to convince her parents, she attended one of the outreach meetings organised by Oxfam India where they educated people around the social evil of child marriage and the legal repercussions of it. Patra remembers, “That meeting gave me the courage to say ‘no’ to my parents. I learnt that the law forbids child marriage. This knowledge gave me strength. I also learnt that if we are forced into marriage, we can contact the Child Development Project Officer (CDPO) of our area.”
Oxfam officials also met Patra’s parents and educated them about the benefits of education and financial independence for girls. This evil practice might have become more unpopular but people have certainly not stopped talking about it. “People in the village often rebuke my parents for falling prey to the NGO’s arguments against child marriage. They say that my parents want to keep me till I get old but we have turned a deaf ear now, ” says Patra.
Patra now works with Oxfam to educate others about child marriage. She campaigns for increasing the marriage age for girls of her community and participates in monthly meetings with other members of the village.
Oxfam India mobilises citizen support through annual initiatives like the Trailwalker Challenge to fund programmes so that underserved citizens like Patra can be helped. “Child marriage persists in our society because of deep-rooted discrimination. Moreover, lack of education and exposure to the world makes the child incapable of understanding what is happening to them. Our objective is to not only to empower the girls and give them a voice but also challenge the existing social norms that allow this evil. This is a long fight but so far down the road, we have been changing mindsets and Deepanjali is a leading example of the same,” says Amitabh Behar, CEO, Oxfam India.
There have been cases where their children have died when they were under a year old, reveals Patra, adding that how a woman in her village who got married early delivered two children one after the other - both of whom died when they were only seven or eight months old.
Besides early marriage, another social evil plaguing the community is the taboo associated with menstruation. “When girls start to menstruate, they are forbidden from doing any household work or stepping out of their houses for seven days. People believe that girls will be condemned if they step out,” Patra informs.
Child marriages destroy a young girl’s life, effectively putting an end to her childhood. Patra shares, “ Girls getting married at an early age are unable to access education and instead forced into household chores. Often, young married girls who become pregnant at an early age face a greater risk of serious health conditions.”
There have been cases where their children have died when they were under a year old, reveals Patra, adding that how a woman in her village who got married early delivered two children one after the other - both of whom died when they were only seven or eight months old. “Her third child has survived and is one year old,” she tells.
Men marry young girls with the sole objective of fulfilling their sexual needs, feels Patra. “Women can’t deny sex to their husband, whether they want to or not,” she adds.
Apart from working with Oxfam, the young advocate for change also teaches young boys and girls of classes I-VIII in the village school for a monthly income of Rs 1,300. She aims to join the Odisha Police and is preparing for the exams as she believes that working outside her village by joining the police force is the only option she has to defy pressure from her family to get married. “I want to get married out of my own choice and not out of pressure,” she concludes.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)