Scheme saves girls from early marriage

Last Updated 07 March 2019, 10:35 IST

Kanyashree Prakalpa aims at checking child marriage and keeping young girls in school.

In 1829, Raja Ram Mohan Roy persuaded the British government to abolish the custom of Sati among Hindu widows and in 1855, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar wrote his first tract on widow remarriage, which was later turned into law.

Modern day Bengal, however, belies the changes these social reformers from the state brought into effect with great peril to their life and social standing, in the face of severe resistance from Hindu conservatives and society, in general.

Child marriage is a widely prevalent practice in West Bengal despite the state having produced a long list of social reformers who led the country in thinking about women empowerment. While the social evil of underage marriages rob girls of a life of dignity and freedom, a 2011 report by Unicef finds that in Bengal currently almost one in every two girls is married off before they reach 18, the legal age for girls to get married.

The district of Murshidabad has the highest incidence of child marriages in the state at 61 per cent and Birbhum comes a close second at 58 per cent, followed by Malda with 56 per cent and Purulia at 54 per cent. While newspaper reports place Bengal among the top five states in India when it comes to child marriage, a nationwide survey conducted by the Centre points out that of all marriages taking place in Bengal, nearly 55 per cent are of minor girls.

It is under these circumstances that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee decided to follow in the footsteps of epoch-making Bengali social reformers and conceived the Kanyashree Prakalpa in 2013, a project that will work towards bringing down the cases of child marriage and keep young girls in school. While it will be for history to judge the ripple effects of the project, Deccan Herald, during a tour of some places, has found that the programme is having the desired effect.

A recent visit to Birbhum, the district having the second highest incidence of child marriage, revealed that the programme has taken a considerable step forward since its launch in October 2013 and has helped to bring back a sizeable number of girls to school. Although government officials could not provi­de ready figures, they were eager to point out that the percentage of girls returning to school is noticeable.

“We estimate the percentage of girls returning to school have gone up by at least 12 to 13 per cent. This might not seem high but it’s a marked improvement over what the situation was the year before,” said an official from the state women & child welfare department.

Officials, however, agree that child marriage is a major social concern and the prime cause of high drop-out rate among girls, particularly between the age of 13 and 19, which is relatively higher than the national average.

While various factors contribute to girls dropping out of school, research by human rights bodies shows that child marriage is prime obstacle to girls’ education and girls stay in school is probably the most effective measure against child marriage.

“Keeping this in mind, the Mamata Banerjee administration devised the project to create an environment that will elevate education, health and nutrition status of women,” state women & child welfare department’s minister Dr Sashi Panja said.

Officials explained that under the programme cash incentives are provided to families of girls within the desired age group with the aim of improving the status and well being of the girl child. The two components of the scheme include an annual scholarship of Rs 500 and a one-time grant of Rs 25,000. “The annual scholarship is for unmarried girls between the age of 13 and 18, enrolled in classes VIII to XII in state-recognised schools, equivalent open schools or equivalent vocational and technical training courses,” an official explained.

Fourteen-year-old Malina is one among 16 lakh girls who stands out as a beneficiary of the project. The Class VIII student dreamt of becoming a teacher till her father Sheikh Ajmal decided to marry her off.

“I have seven children and four of them are girls. Malina is the eldest. I wanted to marry her off because I was finding it difficult to keep her in school. It made no sense since she would get married someday soon. It is only because of the government’s incentive programme that I decided to let her finish study. Also, officials made me understand that if Malina is literate, her children will also learn from her,” Ajmal said.

Shibu Oraon, a tribal village headman, also planned to marry his daughter Buli off before she turned 18. She was adamant on completing her higher secondary, which led to serious arguments between the father and the daughter.

Now that she becomes a beneficiary of the one-time grant, her father feels there is a purpose in continuing her education. Hesitatingly, Shibu admits to have invested Rs 15,000 into a business of sal leaves, used to make utensils.

“Now that I have used a part of the money from the grant Buli received, she has a new-found confidence in her stride. Our little arrangement is she will study in a college if she gets through and I’ll talk of marriage when she turns 23,” he told Deccan Herald.

The case of 19-year-old Papia Bhattacharya is no different. Her father Madhab is a priest, with the family surviving on whatever little he manages to earn from the village temple. Madhab wanted to marry his daughter off because it was getting difficult to feed five mouths.

The one-time grant for Papia has given Madhab the leverage to start a tea shop, which he and his wife will run together, besides his regular activities as a priest. He has learnt from officials that the one-time grant is for girls, who have turned 18 and are enrolled in school, college or some vocational training centre.

It is also for those involved in sports or is an inmate of a home registered under the Juvenile Justice Act 2000. “Both the benefits under the scheme will be granted to girls who belong to families with annual family income of not more than Rs 1.2 lakh although this bar for family is not applicable if the girl is an orphan, physically challenged with 40 per cent disability or is an inmate of a juvenile home,” the official said.

“Since October 2013 till March 2014 around nine lakh girls were brought under the programme. As we celebrated the first year and marked August 14 as Kanyashree Divas, nearly 16 lakh girls have been included. Around 18 lakh girls will be given the scholarship every year and another 3.5 lakh girls will receive the one-time grant annually,” Panja said.

The only obstacle is that of funds. With the project costing the exchequer around Rs 1,000 crore annually, the cash-strapped state will have to find out ways to keep the ball rolling.

(Published 23 August 2014, 17:21 IST)

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