Siliguri’s all-girl group fights child marriages

May 15, 2022 12:00 am | Updated 05:43 am IST - New Delhi

The members have stopped eight weddings in the past two years

Good cause:More than 1,500 girls are part of the group that is headed by 19-year-old Koyel Sarkar.Special Arrangement

Good cause:More than 1,500 girls are part of the group that is headed by 19-year-old Koyel Sarkar.Special Arrangement

She has faced rape threats and stone throwing. Her mother and sister have been stalked. All because of her community work. Koyel Sarkar, 19, leads an all-girl group in Siliguri that works for ending child marriages in her community, and it has stopped eight such unions from materialising in just the past two years.

“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 threw 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 cannot be disclosed for safety reasons.

Mostly grooms or their families are behind these attacks and intimidation. She heads the 25-member “Girl Power Group” in her village, which is a community-led initiative supported by World Vision India, a non-governmental organisation. More than 1,500 girls are part of the group across 65 villages in three blocks of Darjeeling.

The girls have the job of sensitising their peers and other residents to issues of child rights, trafficking and child marriages.

Her work involves making public announcements in the local market to spread awareness of child marriages, conduct street plays and talk to her community members to collect information about impending child marriages. Other girls in her group 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 and then strategises on how to stop it. Once, she even dressed in festive finery to go to a house to stop a wedding. 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 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,” Koyel says.

Koyel was 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 two-and-a-half years old. “She loved to study, and had her other interests too, but had to leave everything behind,” Koyel says about her mother.

Darjeeling being close to the border with Nepal, child trafficking is also a major concern which sometimes takes place in the garb of child marriages. “Sometimes, traffickers come as potential grooms. We also saw that a minor girl met online a stranger from Bihar. Soon, she introduced him to her family. Oneaspect of COVID-19 is the widespread use of digital media to lure victims,” says Amos Tshering of World Vision India.

The NGO promptly intervened to stop their wedding.

Mr. Tshering says after child marriages are stopped, the group help families with a source of income such as a shop or a small business, school re-enrolment for their children, linking them with government schemes as well as extending financial support.

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