Patna: With child marriage still being a big challenge in Bihar, a ray of hope has emerged in a village where, thanks to awareness, nearly 50 marriages of girls under the age of 18 were cancelled in the last one month, officials said.
Like any other sleepy village, Narayanpur village in Supaul district was no different till last December as child marriage was not regarded as unusual. But things have changed after a 50 years old private coaching teacher of the same village reportedly married his 15-year-old student that proved a turning point for the villagers.
“Villagers have decided to save girls from early marriage and allow them to pursue their studies. As a result, nearly 50 marriages of under eighteen years girls were cancelled,” Ram Lakhan Mandal, Sarpanch of Pipra Khurd Panchayat told NewsClick. Narayanpur village is part of this panchayat under Saraigarh Bhaptiyah police station.
But this change of mindset among the villagers came after women rights campaigner Prashanti Tiwari from Gender Alliance, repeatedly addressed the panchayat meetings and asked the villagers to respect the law and save the future of young girls. Gender Alliance is an initiative of the United Nations Population Fund and was started to bring together civil societies, activists, academicians, researchers, media and others on a common platform to advocate gender equality.
Local police station in-charge Brajesh Kumar said, “The private coaching teacher, Chandraprakash Mehta, was arrested by the police last month after Tiwari lodged a written criminal complaint against Mehta under IPC 376 and Prevention of Child Marriage Act for marrying his 15-year-old student.” As per the National Crimes Record Bureau, this was the first criminal complaint on child marriage in entire Bihar since 2014, a state that has an astounding rate of 40 per cent child marriages.
About 20 per cent girls in the age group of 15-19 years in Bihar were married off before the age of 17 years, according to the latest India Child Marriage and Pregnancy Report based on the National Family Health Survey-IV (NFHS) data.
It was earlier reported how villagers have started withdrawing their young girls from education after the news of Mehta’s marriage with his student came to light. However, within two weeks after the incidence was reported, another girl's marriage was solemnised. "We received another SoS on Bandhan Tod (an app launched by Gender Alliance) informing us about the marriage of another minor whom I had personally met during my action against Mehta. This was shocking,” Tiwari told NewsClick. She added, “Police inaction on Mehta boosted the courage of villagers.”
Gender Alliance immediately reached out to Supaul Police Chief, District Magistrate and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s office after which administration swung into action and arrested not only Mehta but also warned the villagers. The Block Development Officer of Sarai Bhaptiyahi Arvind Kumar along with police officer Brajesh Kumar rushed to the village after Nitish Kumar's office reacted to the complaint of Prashanti Tiwari and warned the families against breaking the law. "The father of the minor girl has assured the administration in writing about cancelling the marriage,” said Arvind Kumar.
"The Panchayat also called a Gram Sabha meeting where Prashanti Tiwari was requested to educate and inform the villagers. The villagers understood the reason and Panchayat also passed a resolution on the same,” said a panchayat leader from Narayanpur, Raju Kumar.
Raju also said that dozens of marriages of under eighteen girls in the panchayat and nearby areas have been either postponed or cancelled in recent days, following the intervention of Gender Alliance.
Two years ago, Nitish Kumar announced his commitment to end child marriage in Bihar and also initiated the Kanya Utthan Yojana, a conditional cash transfer scheme. UNICEF and UNFPA have been supporting the state government in this initiative. However, child marriages continue unabated in Bihar as a 'social norm' and the fearless action by Gender Alliance and Prashanti Tiwari has for now saved the lives of at least 50 girls. The spokesperson for Gender Alliance said that they are adopting the entire district as a model district for preventing child marriage and empowering young girls.