“I was scared of being called a ‘besharam’ and ‘badtameez’ (bold and shameless) by the people in my community for voicing out my opinion. However, as I worked in the My Life, Mere Faisle fellowship and worked with the young girls, women and children on the importance of SRHR, I think one has to be ‘besharam’. If that’s going to create a safe environment for young people in the community, then so be it.“– Manisha, an MLMF fellow
Child, Early and Forced Marriage (CEFM) is a practice embedded in patriarchal norms and pervasive gender discrimination. India is home to the largest number of child brides in the world: 223 million– a third of the global total. While it is illegal for girls under the age of 18 to marry, estimates suggest that at least 1.5 million girls under age 18 get married in India each year.
With few avenues for gainful employment for young women, marriage is often seen as the only viable option. Reports have shown a dramatic increase in the cases of CEFM post-COVID 19. Families who lost their livelihoods and income during the pandemic try to cope with their limited resources by getting their daughters married as soon as possible. As the government deliberates the need to increase the age of marriage for girls from 18 to 21 years, it is critical to note this move would further penalise families under financial stress.
While legal interventions may play a role in reducing the cases of CEFM, the enforcement of such laws is very low. Unless social norms change and girls get access to their dreams, agency, and the autonomy of higher education and job opportunities, early marriages will continue. It is therefore necessary to think of a rights-based informed approach that develops girls’ agency to make their own decisions.
Since 1993, Pravah has endeavoured to support the development of future-looking, confident adolescents and youth leaders through psychosocial interventions leading to economic, political and social inclusion. We believe that social change is effected through individual mindset change of individuals alongside the empowerment of the socially excluded. It is imperative to shift the attitudes of individuals in powerful decision-making positions to change the social structures that marginalise communities. We therefore work with young people from diverse backgrounds to enable them to act so they become self-aware, empathetic and socially responsible leaders.
“Sometimes it is not about the age, education, legality and the economy; it becomes more about the patriarchal and cultural norms which has disallowed the young people to take charge of their lives, and make decisions for themselves. Because young people are defined first as a cultural identity which restricts them to exercise their agency.”– Akash and Neetu, Programme Leaders
As a response to the perceived lack of agency amongst adolescents and youth, Pravah designed a programme, My Life, Mere Faisle (My Life, My Decisions) which addresses deep-rooted gender inequality and equips young people to take charge of their lives by making informed decisions, resolving conflicts and advocating for social change. Since 2015, Pravah has run the programme in the 28 districts of 5 states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, Rajasthan and Delhi, engaging 11,500 adolescents and youth directly. Every year, 35 – 40 participants were trained as Youth Facilitators (YFs) as part of a Fellowship to advocate on the issues of social discrimination, gender- and identity-based violence and representation of young people’s voices.
Holding dialogues has been an integral tool for bringing about social change. The programme takes a psychosocial approach to encourage young people to explore themselves, discover layers in their identities, create their aspirations and connect to the society they live in and understand social systems. The capacity to speak up and be heard in the sessions then translates into their homes and communities, so they can influence the decisions that impact on them. This builds agency among participants and equips them to lead change in their contexts through social action. It enables them to ask questions, manage conflicts with empathy and take people along in the change they want to see. Pravah sees this holistic approach as a sustainable model to prevent CEFM and gender-based violence.
“My family is quite patriarchal. I am trying to change that. I have conversations with my mother and aunt. Initially, I used to receive a lot of taunts but now we dialogue in the house. It will take a lot of time to unlearn certain behaviours and ideologies but at least the conversation is happening, and that is allowing us to understand each other better and try to find solutions together.”– Ruqayya, Youth Leader
The program’s success is evident in the transformative journeys of the young participants who have initiated conversations at home, while also leading advocacy efforts to talk about critical issues that are taboo, like menstrual health, sexual health, toxic masculinity, pleasure, contraception, and the need for comprehensive sexuality education with all stakeholders. Through an annual youth-led campaign “Chota Muh Khari Baat” (“Young people, true and bold talk”), youth advocates have reached more than 6.3 million people online and 40,000+ people on the ground, collaborating with non-SRHR allies and important stakeholders to break gender barriers through dialogues. The programme has facilitated multiple intergenerational conversations in communities, as well as among diverse young people.
Pinki, a 19 year old child marriage survivor from Jaipur, Rajasthan, joined My Life, Mere Faisle programme in 2021 with the intention of working with other young girls who are married off at a very early age. The Fellowship was not only a learning space for her but also became her battleground to fight gender injustice: she wanted to break the silence on the issue of CEFM within her community. Her social action project during Chota Muh Khari Baat was holding ‘Chaupal Pe Charcha’ (dialogue on the square) in her village. She held a dialogue with the elders in her village to negotiate spaces for girl child education and health. It was her charcha (dialogue circle) that shook the village and sparked a change in the mindset of people to delay the child marriages of many more girls. Post-fellowship, she is now on the path to complete her higher studies with support from her family and her in-laws.
As the programme stirs up the conversation of identities, gender and SRHR, it has also witnessed backlashes from the communities where these conversations are a first. Using entry points that are more acceptable in the community has been a successful method to address sensitive issues, partnered with consistent and multiple conversations with stakeholders to improve engagement. Going forward, it will be important to develop a strategy to work closely with stakeholders such as parents and teachers who can provide a supportive environment for young people exercising their agency within the family and in classrooms. The programme needs to engage more men, boys and community leaders as partners advocating for gender equity, as well as further exploration to advocate for sexual and reproductive rights from a pleasure-centric approach. The programme also needs to create an environment to build the agency of people from diverse gender identities and sexual orientation.
The programme, My Life, Mere Faisle, and the campaign, Chota Muh Khari Baat, have become synonyms to the voices of young people. Pravah is proud to push the field of strengthening young people’s agency and to move the needle from ‘youth development’ to ‘youth centrality’ in development agendas. The mission is to root and advocate for young people, who are asserting themselves, placing their needs at the centre and challenging existing norms to build a world which is inclusive for all. It is high time we create spaces for the youth, by the youth and with the youth to unleash their potential in a safe, affirming and empowering environment.