She has faced rape threats, stone pelting and her mother and sister have been stalked because of the work she carries out in her community. Nineteen-year-old Koyel Sarkar is the head of an all-girls group in Siliguri that works for ending child marriages in her community, and they have together stopped eight child marriages in the past two years alone.
“On more than one occasion, men have stormed into my home and threatened me with rape and murder. They have warned my mother that they will harm me on my way back from school or my tuition classes. Once someone pelted stones at me, after which I decided to stop going for my tuition classes,” says Koyel, who has been intervening to stop child marriages in her village for the past seven years. The name of her village is not being disclosed for reasons of safety.
Mostly grooms or their families are behind these attacks and intimidation.
Sensitising on child rights
She heads the 25-member “Girl Power Group” in her village, which is a community-led initiative supported by NGO World Vision India. More than 1,500 girls across 65 villages in three blocks of Darjeeling are part of this group. The girls have the job of sensitising their peers as well as other residents on issues of child rights, trafficking and child marriage.
Her work involves making public announcements in the local market to spread awareness about child marriages, conduct street plays as well as talk to her community members to collect information about an impending child marriage. Other girls in her group also tip her off. In many cases, she then tries to meet the young girl whose marriage is being planned, and strikes a casual conversation with her to find out the time and date of the wedding. She then strategizes on how to stop it.
Once, she even dressed in festive finery to gain entry into a house, where a wedding was scheduled, in order to stop it.
COVID-19 and child marriages
COVID-19 has led to a spurt in child marriages, she says. “The main reason is that families feel that since COVID-19 protocols don’t allow large gatherings, now is a good time for a wedding as it will be a cheaper affair. Often parents who find it difficult to make their ends meet and see daughters as another financial burden also consider it best to send her off to another family though there is no guarantee that she will be looked after there,” says Koyel.
Other common reasons for child marriages according to her are fear among parents about their daughter’s safety, as well as concern that the girls might fall in love and elope.
Koyel was also drawn to the cause because she has experienced first-hand how an early forced marriage can ruin one’s dreams. Her mother was married at the age of 17, to a man who was 35 years old. Her father abandoned the entire family when she was only 2.5 years old. “She loved to study and had her other interests too, but had to leave everything behind,” she says about her mother.
Child trafficking across borders
Darjeeling being close to the border with Nepal, which is a porous border as no visas are required to travel across the border, child trafficking is also a major concern here, which sometimes takes place in the garb of child marriages.
“Sometimes traffickers come as potential grooms. In one incident, we saw that a minor girl met a stranger online from Bihar. Soon, she introduced him to her family. One other aspect of Covid-19 is the widespread use of digital media to lure victims,” says Amos Tshering, Technical Specialist- Anti-Child Trafficking, World Vision India. The NGO promptly intervened to stop their wedding.
In March 2021, UNICEF warned that 10 million additional girls were at risk of being married early due to Covid-19 because of shuttered schools, isolation from friends and rising poverty and called for immediate action such as by opening schools and ensuring social protection measures for vulnerable families.
Mr. Tshering says after child marriages are stopped, they help families by providing them a source of income such as through setting up a shop or a small business, school re-enrolment for their children, linking them with government schemes as well as extending financial support.