Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is from Pinaki Halder, West Bengal state director for Landesa, a global development non-profit that works to secure land rights for the world’s poor.
In the next two decades, 28 million girls in India will be married before their eighteenth birthdays if current trends continue. In rural areas across India, most girls are married before they turn seventeen, which has devastating consequences not just for these girls and their children, but also for society as a whole.
Moushumi Khatun, a thirteen year old living in a rural area of the state of West Bengal, is trying to avoid the path her two older sisters were forced to take: both were married off to older men before the age of seventeen, and the eldest is already a mother of two at age eighteen. Khatun is fighting an uphill battle; in much of rural India, girls eat last and least. They are born underweight and remain that way for much of their lives. Parents marry off their young daughters out of fear that the family name will be tarnished if the girl remains unmarried, or that they will have to pay a higher dowry for an older bride. Even Khatun’s mother said, “I am not comfortable keeping a daughter unmarried past fifteen or sixteen.” Her grandmother agrees: “It is destiny. This is not in our hands. This is the way it has always been.”
But a new program, a partnership between the government of West Bengal and Landesa, the organization I work for, is offering girls the opportunity to challenge age-old tradition and change perceptions in the process. “Moushumi told me that early marriage is not healthy,” recalled her mother, who is now amenable to the idea of allowing her youngest to pursue a different path. Khatun learned of the dangers of child marriage during one of her bi-monthly meetings as part of the Girls Project pilot. At these meetings, Khatun and her peers learn about their right to an education, to not be married off as a child, and to inherit land. They also learn organic gardening skills that help them grow food for their families and perhaps one day sell excess produce. For many girls, the small change they earn through their vegetable patches helps pay school fees and counteract stereotypes of girls being little more than a drain on family finances.
In the program, girls learn to grow fruits and vegetables on whatever free space they can find around their family’s homes. Many grow gourds on the roof of their homes, leafy greens in small patches next to their homes and even mushrooms in the spaces under their own beds. These tiny gardens can bring girls hundreds of rupees each year-- enough for school supplies and incidentals, but not enough to cover the entire cost of the girls’ dowries. Parents of rural girls routinely pay grooms’ families dowries that amount to thousands of rupees. There is a heavy financial pressure to marry girls early, as doing so can reduce their dowries.
Still, Khatun and her best friend, fourteen-year-old Beauty Barman, both have small gardens and have been able to convince their families to keep them in school until they turn eighteen. Although their futures may seem of little consequence to anyone outside their village, empowering girls is central to the fight against global poverty and disease. Educated girls have fewer children and are 50 percent more likely to immunize their children. The benefits of empowering girls go far beyond the household as well: when 10 percent or more girls go to school, a country’s GDP increases by 3 percent on average.
More than 40,000 girls are now participating in the Girls Project. A rigorous study has found that these girls are staying in school longer, marrying later, and are more likely to inherit land and have an economic asset in their name. The Indian government, conscious of the benefits of investing in girls, supports the Girls Project and helped expand the project from 7,000 to 40,000 girls. This is part of a new nation-wide effort to keep girls in school that may see the Girls Project expanded across all of West Bengal within the next few years.
The international community has also taken up this issue: the United Nations launched the inaugural International Day of the Girl just two years ago and leaders from Hillary Clinton to Archbishop Desmond Tutu are speaking out against the practice of child marriage. Tutu recently proclaimed that by ignoring the problem of child brides, “you dismiss more than half of humanity.”
The Girls Project -- and similar projects around the world, tackling challenges once seen as too sensitive or ingrained to change -- should be celebrated, expanded, and replicated to ensure that girls like Khatun have a chance to change their destiny.