Stopping child marriage and empowering the girl child

                                                                                                        Kanika Barman, Megan Mylan and Monica Barman

A United Nations report in July said that India has the sixth highest prevalence of child marriage with one in every three child brides living in India.

In patriarchal societies like that of India, a girl child is often perceived as a burden by her family because she is not seen as a financial contributor and that her family has to be pay dowry to get her married. The cost of dowry can devastate a family financially; so many families do what they can to avoid paying a large dowry. In many cases, this means marrying a girl off young, even when she is 12 or 14 years old. By tradition, if a bride is very young, dowry is sometimes reduced or not required. Once married, girls usually have to drop out of school. But many are fighting this regressive trend and building up awareness to create enlightened girl-child friendly societies.

In the last three years, over 40,000 adolescent girls from West Bengal have bloomed into the latest crop of breadwinners from rural India. This is the story of After My Garden Grows, a new documentary by Megan Mylan, the Oscar-winning director of India's ‘Smile Pinki’. In the movie ‘After My Garden Grows’, Monica shuns the idea of becoming a child bride by growing her own garden, thereby becoming an asset to her family. Her family had married her older sister off. However, Monica decided that this was not the path for her. In the documentary, it is shown how Monica goes to the market and earns 760, starting her journey as an income generator, and changing her family’s perception on girl child.

The film premiered at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival this year. It was produced by Principe Productions and supported by the Sundance Film Institute in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) with additional support from the Kendeda Fund.Talking about the documentary on the sidelines of the screening of the documentary at the Kolkata international film festival, Megan says, “Ideas of social change and stories of people evolving on their own through change are what pull me to make documentaries on their enterprise and hardship. My films, though they deal with poverty and ignorance, are aimed at hope because I see hope in the way Monica is trying to change her life along with the lives of other girls in her village. She is knowledgeable about what she is doing and talks about this in my film.”

She feels, “Fathers need to understand that the best economic investment they can make for themselves and their daughters is education. It's to empower them to become economic providers of the family.I am not going to gauge its impact by finding out if the last girl was not married before 18 because of the movie. But the fact that Minister Maneka Gandhi has decided to include the film in the ministry’s basket of films to be shown in rural areas of 100 districts is heartening." In early 2012, Landesa, a rural development institute partnered with Women and Child Development Department of Government of West Bengal, India through the SABLA programme, which aims at improving the nutritional and health status of adolescent girls and to empower them through education on life skills, health, nutrition and vocational skills. Landesa brought in an innovative approach in the pilot implementation of the scheme in a block at Coochbehar District by introducing land component in both life skill education and vocational skill development in the empowering process.

Supriya Chattopadhyay, Communication Manager, Landesa, said, “Poor, rural girls in West Bengal face a host of vulnerabi- lities that threaten their social and economic wellbeing. These include extreme poverty, malnutrition, gender-based violence, lack of education, trafficking, and child marriage. Numerous factors play a role in creating girl’s vulnerabilities, but two in particular are at the heart of the Girls Project. One is how families and communities perceive a girl’s value. Another is the poor economic reality. The issue of child marriage illustrates how these factors converge to the detriment of girls. He adds, “Landesa’s curriculum includes teaching girls about their rights to own and inherit land, and intensive gardening skills. The goal is to improve the girls’ nutrition in the short-term and in the long-term, improve the girls’ understanding of their land rights to allow them to exercise those rights when they are women. Landesa is working with partners to explore integrating the initiative with the existing ‘Kanyashree’ programme by the state government which aims at continued education and delayed marriage for the girls.” Presently, Landesa is working with the government to scale this innovative intervention in five districts beginning in 2015. Landesa is working with partners to explore integrating the initiative with the existing ‘Kanyashree’ programme by the state government which aims at continued education and delayed marriage for the girls. The project’s intended high-level outcome is that up to 1.4 million girls will be positioned to realize land rights as women, improving their economic and social prospects and empowering them to reduce vulnerabilities that they face as adolescents. An estimation suggests that, once scaled to reach one million girls, the programme will cost an average of only 60 Indian Rupees/1 US Dollar per girl per year.

She signs off, “At a time when we see daily reports of women's rights in India under attack, it is a privilege to be able to share this positive story about young women empowering themselves.”

After My Garden Grows, is a new short documentary by Oscar winning director of Smile Pinki, Megan Mylan. The film tells the story of Monika Barman, a rural Indian teenager growing food to feed her family and the seeds of her own independence in a tiny rooftop garden. 

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