India turns 70 – what should we celebrate

Kreeanne Rabadi talks about why India which celebrates its 70th Independence Day needs to assess its progress through a different lens – the health and happiness of its children.

Over a casual weekend brunch with a few friends earlier this month, the most salient theme was Independence Day. ‘India at 70’ is very “hot and happening”, said one friend while the other, an advertising professional talked about how her company has been working overtime to promote ‘brand India’ the right way to their international clientele.

‘India is transforming – people in small towns and villages have access to so much choice, many more brands” she added.

The next day at the CRY office I entered a different world as always, but the brunch conversation stayed with me.

How do we measure the success of India? GDP? Other economic factors? Or is it good health, open-minded communities, opportunities to grow – all assets that would greatly contribute to the well-being of its citizens.

If we can get ourselves to acknowledge that these assets are critical then we need to look at India’s children – are they healthy and happy today? Amongst the most vulnerable children are girls from marginalised communities – do they have the freedom to thrive?

While we have made considerable progress on economic metrics for which we are recognised globally, big challenges remain in our efforts towards upliftment of the girl child, despite the existence of many government programmes and schemes.

And we are certainly not free from the menace of child marriage.

In Maharashtra, one of the most progressive states in India, child marriage continues to be practised even today.  Families belonging to vulnerable communities depend mainly on agriculture as their main source of livelihood. And the migration season (from October to March) is when they gain the most from it. With migration comes the side effect of children dropping out of school and eventually being forced into child labour or child marriage.

There are 11,89,805 married children in Maharashtra, out of which 8,13,920 are married girls below 18 years.  The number of married boys in the state between the age group of 0-18 years is 3, 75,885.  Interestingly 4% of boys below 18 are married compared to 9% of girls.

Additionally, the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 4 2015-16 data says that 25% of the women between the ages of 20-24 years surveyed were married before 18 years of age.  In urban areas, it was 18% while in rural areas it was as high as 32%!

Girls are the most vulnerable as they are seen both as an asset as well as a liability. Fear of rape and sexual abuse compels parents to marry off their adolescent daughters, some even before they reach puberty. On the other side, families in which these girls are married into, view them as an asset and an extra earning member. The system is called ‘jodpa’ or ‘koyta’ system where the couple gets more money than a single earning person, especially working on sugar cutting farms.

Gunj village, situated in Pathri block of Parbhani district is one such example in Maharashtra where child marriages used to occur regularly.  Since there is no official source of livelihood in the village, 80% of Dalit families living here migrate every year to neighbouring districts for sugar cutting or working in brick kilns. Child marriages were something that was normal in this village until CRY with support from its partner SANKALP intervened.

In order to prevent children from migration, SANKALP with the help of adolescent groups, school authorities and School Management Committees (SMCs) demanded  setting up of a Hungami Vasti Gruh or seasonal hostels to ensure that these children don’t drop out or become victims of child labour and child marriage, but continue their studies instead.

SANKALP also founded an adolescent girls group in the village to act as a support system for girls who did not want to get married. The efforts paid off when a village girl named Usha refused a marriage proposal her parents had received during the migration season. Usha along with her girls from the group convinced her parents that she wanted to study further and was not interested in marriage.

When the boy and his parents came to visit the family, Usha was present along with her friends. She asserted in front of her parents that she wanted to study further and did not want to get married, adding that her friends wanted to do the same. She then walked out of the house along with her friends. Usha’s mother stood by her daughter’s decision and requested the visitors to have lunch and leave. The visitors obliged, had lunch and walked away peacefully.

There are too many girls in India who are not as lucky as Usha. So yes, while we should celebrate our Independence Day and all that this great country of ours has achieved, we should acknowledge that today there are still many children, particularly girls who do not experience the freedom that we take so much for granted. They do not have the freedom to pursue their dreams and to meet their full potential. Our thoughts need to be with them as well this Independence Day, and our energy and efforts going forward.

Happy Independence Day everyone.  

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