Kavita recounts how her family was recently wracked by conflict. She says quietly, “My older sister, who was 18 years old at the time, was getting married. My family members decided that I should get married along with her. But I’m much younger than her and didn’t want to get married. I must have fought with my parents and relatives every day for about 5 to 6 months about this.”
The issue of child marriage is a very common problem in Kavita’s hometown of Allahabad in the conservative Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Here, girls are married early and are expected to bear children soon after. Issues such as contraception, sexually transmitted infections, and reproductive rights of young people are met with a wall of silence. Since these issues are not openly discussed, children like Kavita are left with few options but to passively protest their inevitable fates.
Kavita was luckier than most since she had a temporary escape to go to whenever things at home became too much to deal with. Her escape consisted of the youth centre established by the Action Project. At this centre, Kavita met like-minded girls, most of whom were no strangers to familial pressure to get married at a very young age. The Action Project had set up these youth centres so that young boys and girls could enjoy this safe environment which allowed them the opportunity to speak freely with their friends, engage in healthy activities such as sports and games, and learn about their sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).
It was at the youth centre that Kavita first received information about child marriage, which, she says, made her feel more confident at the notion of standing up to her family. However, when her mother discovered that the youth centre was offering information that went against an age old tradition, Kavita was forbidden to visit the youth centre again. It was only after Kavita discussed what she had learned about child marriage with her mother, that the pressure to get married waned. Although Kavita’s mother had listened with an open mind, Kavita’s uncle still called from Delhi yelling at her to get married. Kavita said that the last time this happened, “I told him that I could send him to jail if he forced me to get married. I knew it was illegal.”
Soon, Kavita volunteered to become a peer leader, which meant that it was her responsibility to meet with other girls in her neighbourhood and be a mentor to them. She leads meetings every week and discusses issues related to SRHR, including HIV, and other issues that are meaningful to the girls in her group.
When she joined as peer leader, Kavita says that she was intimidated at the thought of speaking with other parents in the village to educate them about important issues such as child marriage. But that slowly changed over time. Kavita says, “Earlier, no one in the village knew me, but now people greet me nicely and recognize me. We (peer leaders) would be scared to speak with the Pradan (Village Leader) because we thought he’d scold us and tell us that we were children, but now we possess the confidence to speak with him, and he listens to what we have to say.”
Kavita is just one of many young girls who found the courage to stand up for their rights by joining the Action Project. Her personal goal, she says, is to ensure that no member of her peer group is forced into child marriage. She seems determined and sincere as she slowly repeats that there is no chance of this happening on her watch.
The Action Project is funded by the European Commission and endeavours to strengthen and empower civil society organisations and youth groups to advocate for more responsive policies addressing the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of young people. The project focuses on the most marginalised young people—MSM and transgender community members, drug users, sex workers and those living with HIV. The project is being implemented in partnership with MAMTA and SASO in India and by HASAB in Bangladesh. By 2013, the Action project will have contributed to shaping SRHR policies and their implementation in India and Bangladesh by supporting the meaningful participation of young people in relevant processes and programmes.