Odisha’s ‘silent’ assault on child marriage

The government has roped in the police to spread awareness rather than angst, with the umbrella message of child protection

February 15, 2023 03:49 am | Updated 03:49 am IST - BHUBANESWAR

Girls from the Kandhamal district of Odisha take part in an awareness campaign against child marriage.

Girls from the Kandhamal district of Odisha take part in an awareness campaign against child marriage. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

At a time when Assam is seeing mass arrests for child marriage, attracting criticism for the suddenness of the extreme drive, Odisha has taken a long-term view to bringing about social and behavioural change over the past four to five years.

The emphasis has been multi-pronged: all districts track the absence of girls in schools and villages, reporting these numbers to the district administration, who then sends representatives for counselling. ‘Advika – Every Girl is Unique’ is a platform linking all schemes targeting girls, from 10 to 19 years. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has come out with guidelines to declare villages child-marriage-free. There are also monetary incentives for particularly vulnerable tribal groups, while individual districts have come up with their own ways of tackling the problem.

People of Pujaripara village in Nabarangpur district of Odisha celebrate their village being declared free of child marriage.

People of Pujaripara village in Nabarangpur district of Odisha celebrate their village being declared free of child marriage. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In January this year, Subarnapur District Collector Aboli Naravane wove a Kathak performance into a local celebration. The song O Ri Chiraiya, to which she danced, talks about the injustice done to women, and was the theme for Satyamev Jayate, a series by Aamir Khan highlighting social evils. Ms. Naravane’s theme was child marriage and sending girls back to school, she Tweeted.

“Engaging with the community, especially girls in the age group of 15 to 18 who are dropouts and retaining them in educational institutions is important,” said Ms. Navarne, adding that they were addressing the practice of elopement and marrying too. “Prosecution may be an option only when it becomes necessary, particularly against families who support child marriage.”

Odisha recorded an overall decline in the prevalence of child marriage: from 21.3% in National Family Health Survey-4 to 20.5% in NFHS-5. However, the southern Odisha district of Nabarangpur had an urgent challenge: data indicated that Nabarangpur had 39.4% girls married under the age of 18 years in comparison to the State average of 20.5% and the national average of 23.3%. Only 15.5% of women of in the district had completed 10 years or more schooling. As many as 50 panchayats were identified as vulnerable on the basis of high incidences of child marriages.

The Odisha police was brought into the picture. The inspectors in-charge of the police stations were assigned the job of conducting monthly meetings in the community to discuss dropping out from school and child marriages with representatives of the panchayat, parents, and children. Police stations were made child friendly so that girls would feel empowered to approach the police. The communication has been around a loss of education, the health issues with teenage pregnancies, and the empowerment of adolescent girls themselves. The police also took up ‘Kishori Jagrukta Saptah’ (adolescent sensitisation week) last year. The police in Jharsuguda followed a similar model, where they adopted 44 villages.

Last year when Odisha found that 43,000 students failed to turn up for the Class X examination, an inquiry was ordered. Child marriage was found to be one of the reasons behind the absence of examinees. In Ranipokhari panchayat of Mayurbhanj district alone, more than 100 children below 18 were found married off, the majority from the Kolha tribe.

Creating awareness

Community leaders of 29 caste, tribe, and religious groups were roped in to build awareness about child marriages. UNICEF and ActionAid Association India, a non-profit working with women and children, supported the district administrations to engage with them.

All these measures have yielded some promise: community-based organisations Paudi Bhuyan Samaj in Sundargarh, Panabeda Ganda Samaj in Nabarangpur, and Jharia Sahu (Teli) Samaj in Bargarh came up with declarations they would not allow marriages to be solemnised for girls below 18 and bridegroom below 21. Though it did not end the age-old practice immediately, the message was loud and clear.

“Over-emphasis on prosecution will take the administration nowhere when the issue is deeply rooted in culture and social norms,” Ghasiram Panda, a programme manager in ActionAid, said. In a few cases, arrests have been made during rescue of child brides and bridegrooms from marriage mandaps. The National Crime Record Bureau data indicates that 64 cases have been initiated pertaining to child marriage. But the focus has largely been on bringing about a mindset change.

The approaches to prevent child marriages differ from district to district. While Nayagarh, about 90 km from Bhubneshwar, maintains a database of close to 50,000 adolescent girls by recording information, the Ganjam district administration in the south of Odisha has made production of Aadhaar number mandatory in all marriages.

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