I have a dream
With the help of an innovative mobile phone service, UN agencies are working with the Government and local bodies in Rajasthan to combat child marriage.
She is a tiny girl with braided hair, tied at the end with pink ribbons. Her face droops in despair as she walks next to an older man. The garlands around their necks indicate that they have just been wed. The little blackboard she holds in her hand, with the first letters of the Hindi alphabet on it, tells us that she’d rather be in school.
But here she is now – this time grinning happily, all dressed for school – sitting next to her smiling mother.
The poster with the two disparate images of the girl child has a simple yet effective message. Educate your children; stop child marriage, says the blurb on the illustrations posted on the Facebook page of Naubat Baja Missed Call Radio, a cloud telephony-based radio channel in the western Indian state of Rajasthan that addresses issues of adolescents’ well-being, empowerment and health.
The Naubat Baja project, conceived by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), is a joint initiative of the Directorate of Women Empowerment, Government of Rajasthan, the Rural Electrification Corporation (REC) Foundation and UNFPA. Jeevan Ashram Sansthan (JAS), a non-governmental organisation (NGO), is the implementing agency.
The little girl in the Naubat Baja poster could well have been Sapna, a teenager in Jaipur. Sapna is not her name, but it means a dream in Hindi and captures the girl’s heart. Sapna’s dream could so easily have remained just that – a mere pipedream. For, just the other day, her family was pulling her out of school and preparing for her wedding.
That’s when Shreya, a 20-year-old student based in Jaipur, stepped in. Her name is not Shreya either. She would rather not identify herself, but what she did in a lower middle class neighbourhood in the Rajasthan capital is quite out of the ordinary. She helped Sapna hold on to the dream of a secure future.
A part-time volunteer with JAS, which works to empower women and girls, Shreya heard about the wedding of the schoolgirl. She called a mobile number – and stopped the marriage.
The incident highlights the successful collaboration between the state Government, local non-governmental organisations and the United Nations.
“Naubat Baja” means an ensemble of musical instruments which were played together in earlier times to catch the attention of people. Likewise, the Naubat Baja joint initiative functions as a town crier, relaying messages against harmful practices such as child marriage and gender discrimination.
Launched on International Women’s Day — March 8 — in 2019, Naubat Baja relies largely on the strength of mobile phones, which have penetrated the remotest corners of India. The initiative banks on the fact that the cell phone is the youth’s favourite mode of communication, particularly in areas where people have little access to television, cable connections or the internet.
Time for Action
As a social volunteer, Shreya knew about the Naubat Baja mission – and the number of a child helpline that it relayed. In June 2021, she got to hear that a child was to be wed to a 30-year-old man. Sapna’s father had taken a loan from the man’s family. When he could not repay it, the lender – the would-be groom’s father – said he would write off the loan if Sapna married his son.
Shreya called the helpline, and the police swung into action. The wedding was stopped. Sapna was sent to a shelter for two months, but is now back home — and has re-joined school.
Child marriage is a global issue. In 2016, UNICEF, with UNFPA, launched the ‘Global Programme to End Child Marriage’ in India and 11 other countries. “Child marriage ends childhood,” according to UNICEF. “It negatively influences children’s rights to education, health and protection. These consequences impact not just the girl directly, but also her family and community.”
In India, according to the National Family Health Survey (2019-21), underage marriage accounted for 23.3 percent of marriages. Child marriage is defined as when the bride is below the age of 18 and/or the groom is below the age of 21.
The prohibited practice, however, still occurs in many states, including Rajasthan. Shreya has witnessed this first-hand. Her two elder sisters, she says, were married off when they were minors.
“I have seen the difficulties they face now due to lack of education. I do not want other girls to fall into this trap,” says Shreya, who is doing her master’s.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased concerns about child marriage. The pandemic, which began as a health crisis, is now a child rights crisis, too, UNICEF says. In ‘COVID-19: A threat to progress against child marriage’, released in March 2021, UNICEF predicts that as a consequence of the pandemic, 10 million additional child marriages may occur before the end of the decade. Even before the pandemic, 100 million girls were at risk of child marriage in the next decade.
“School closures, economic stress, service disruptions, pregnancy, and parental deaths due to the pandemic are putting the most vulnerable girls at increased risk of child marriage,” a UNICEF statement adds.
In India, too, there are concerns about the impact of the pandemic-induced economic distress and insecurity on child marriage. “Families that find it hard to sustain themselves would rather marry off their girls even if they are not yet of age. It would mean fewer mouths to feed,” JAS director Radhika Sharma says. Arranging a wedding in pandemic times also means less spending because of restrictions on gatherings, she adds.
With people leaving homes and travelling to distant areas in search of work, getting daughters married early also assures parents of their offspring’s safety. “Parents often feel their girls would be safe if they are married off early. They would not be abused physically if it is known they are married,” Sharma adds. “Poverty, lack of education, patriarchy and gender inequalities are also important factors (behind the practice).”
In Rajasthan, civil society organisations such as JAS are battling the practice – and succeeding in spreading awareness about the dangers of child marriage through innovative programmes such as Naubat Baja.
The Naubat Baja programme has been getting a good response from listeners. A caller does not need an Internet connection to get through. On giving a missed call to the number 7733959595, the user gets a call back with a 15-minute capsule of free infotainment, peppered with Hindi film songs and short stories and plays themed around social issues narrated through comedy or satire. There is news about employment opportunities, general knowledge facts and information about government welfare schemes aimed at the youth.
The content is regularly updated. The programme, overseen by UNFPA representatives, is produced in studios with the help of a content team of researchers and presented by professional radio jockeys.
The programme is popularised through social media, graffiti and awareness campaigns in rural and urban areas by volunteers, community leaders, members of Panchayats (rural governing bodies) and Anganwadi (rural child care centres) and Asha (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers. Volunteers and adolescent group leaders associated with Naubat Baja are called champions. Shreya is one such champion.
“The Naubat Baja initiative supported by REC Foundation aims to empower young people and adolescents in vulnerable communities, especially girls, to become change agents in preventing harmful practices like child marriage and gender-based discrimination while promoting the value of the girl child.
The initiative is one of the innovative strategies employed by UNFPA and partners involved to ensure young people are aware of their rights and the opportunities available to them, have access to accurate information and services regarding their health and well-being, and are able to participate and contribute to addressing social issues that affect them.”
– Sriram Haridass, UNFPA Representative India a.i.
Messages on themes such as child marriage, domestic violence, adolescent girls’ health, menstrual hygiene, gender sensitisation, financial awareness, COVID-19 protocols and precautions are conveyed through mini radio dramas.
“It is a new and innovative way of spreading socially relevant messages to the youth,” says Umar Deen Khan, district magistrate, Jhunjhunu, a region where there are incidents of underage marriage.
Across Rajasthan, measures are being taken to draw stakeholders into the campaign. As part of a state action plan on ending child marriage, UNFPA and UNICEF have supported the training of Panchayat leaders to underline their roles in addressing gender inequality and harmful practices (like child marriage); and enhancing the value of women and girls.
Effective programming measures, such as getting girls back to school and ensuring access to social protection and economic empowerment programmes and to health and security will help combat child marriage. It is with this objective that the UNFPA-UNICEF ‘Global Programme to End Child Marriage’ launched the second phase of its campaign in 2020, after completing the first four-year phase (2016-2019).
The programme seeks to ensure that “adolescent girls at risk of and affected by child marriage effectively make their own informed decisions” regarding marriage, education, and sexual and reproductive health, and that “systems and institutions effectively respond to the needs of adolescent girls and their families; and that there is enhanced legal and political response to prevent child marriage.
The global programme, UNFPA-UNICEF says in a 2019 report on strategies and achievements of Phase 1, has surpassed most of its output targets. “(It reached) millions of people in the 12 programme countries with interventions designed to end child marriage. The programme has continuously extended its reach to larger populations of adolescent girls and community members. Most countries have reached or exceeded their targets, and there have been significant improvements in programme achievements over the four years of the Global Programme implementation.”
In Rajasthan, efforts are on to draw in more partners in the drive against child marriage. Local frontline workers and members of the Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan (NYKS) — one of the largest youth networks in the world — are being trained to hold meetings and talks with adolescent girls and families in the community on messages aired by Naubat Baja.
Bhuvanesh Jain, NYKS regional director and advisor to Naubat Baja, stresses that stakeholders need to more proactively strategise partnerships with large-scale school-related programmes and identify scalable school and community-based platforms for female-centred life skills and training.
UNFPA India Representative a.i. Haridass adds: “The initiative is one of the innovative strategies employed by UNFPA and partners involved to ensure young people are aware of their rights and the opportunities available to them, have access to accurate information and services regarding their health and well-being, and are able to participate and contribute to addressing social issues that affect them.”
Once the strategies start to bear fruit, and when there are numerous initiatives such as Naubat Baja engaging and empowering young people like Shreya, thousands of Sapnas will dare to dream.
The Naubat Baja poster against child marriage sums it up well. “I will let my children’s dreams soar,” says the mother next to the happy girl child in school.
Writer: UN/Rakhee Roytalukdar/Word Wide Media
Illustrator: Zainab Dehgamwala