A lone girl’s crusade against child marriage in an Aurangabad village has become a movement with 50 villages in the district falling in line.

Villagers scoffed at, neighbours jeered and relatives poked fun at Sarita Prabhakar Wagh, just because she was not married.

Sarita, now 20, had learnt to live with all this since she was 14 years of age. She drew strength from her parents who stood by her rock solid as they knew marrying girls young was not a wise decision. It was not easy not to be married at 14 in Pachod Khurd village in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra. While Maharashtra is counted among the prosperous States on most social indicators, this district has a tradition of marrying off girls very young.

“Most of my friends were married at 14 but I did not want to and I expressed this to my parents who agreed. They are educated and knew what early marriage could do to a girl,” Sarita told The Hindu at the recently concluded Women Deliver conference where she participated and even spoke of her work and experience in the field of child marriage.

Even if the girls in Pachod Khurd wanted to study, there were no schools beyond Class V and there were no means of livelihood. The only thing parents did was marry their daughters off. 

But, thanks to Sarita, this has changed. Braving criticism and taunts, she studied and joined Jeevan Kaushlya — a livelihood programme run by the Institute of Health Management at Pachod where she was imparted skill training. Feeling empowered, she took up the task of convincing villagers not to marry off girls young. It was difficult to break centuries-old traditions but she left no stone unturned. In the meantime, her 17-year-old friend died at childbirth which further strengthened her resolve. She would cite example of her death to the villagers to try and change their opinion.

 Initially the villagers tried to pressurise Sarita’s parents against her work; then they tried to negotiate with each other to work out means to prevent the movement from spreading. “Gradually, young girls of the village got together and launched a movement of sorts against child marriage. We found Shanti Kishori Mandal or a group of 12-13 girls who pledged not to marry early. The movement spread and adolescent girls are now being trained in livelihood skills instead of being marrying off,” Sarita says proudly.

Today, over 50 villages in Aurangabad are influenced by the movement and have pledged not to marry off girls before 18 years.

 The girls raise issues of sex selection, child marriage and other social evils through street plays to create awareness and involve the community. The percentage of child marriage was 82 per cent when Sarita took up the challenge. It came down to 62 per cent within two years and now there are rarely any such incidents. 

Lakshmi Sundaram, Global Coordinator of Girls Not Brides that took up the cause of child marriage in Pachod Khurd, says, “A country’s rate of child marriage is a well-defined, measurable indicator of the welfare of its adolescent girls”

 Child brides usually drop out of school and are denied the opportunity to complete their education, significantly reducing their ability to earn an income. Girls who give birth before the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s; the children of child brides are 60 per cent more likely to die before their first birthday than the children of mothers who are over 19; girls who marry before the age of 18 are more likely to experience violence within marriage than women who marry later.

 Girls Not Brides, a global partnership, was launched in September 2011 by The Elders, a group of eminent global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela and including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Graça Machel and Mary Robinson.