It was a phone call that saved 13-year-old Preeti from becoming a child bride. Just after the country-wide lockdown was imposed, in June, Preeti’s parents decided to get her married off, quietly. Preeti’s father, the only earning member in the family of five, thought this would be the ideal time— he would be able to take the burden off one mouth to feed and it would be done, without drawing much attention. He couldn’t have been more wrong.
“The groom’s family came to my house to finalise the date,” the 13-year-old recollected. Preeti knew she had to act quickly, but she didn’t have a personal phone to alert anyone. She used her brother’s phone to attend the online classes; but was quite irregular as it depended on her brother’s schedule. The day after her wedding date was finalised, she sneaked out the phone, stepped out of her house in Anoopshahr, a city in Bulandshahr district of Uttar Pradesh, and made a call to her school teacher. “They are getting me married, please help me. I don’t want to marry,” she remembered telling her teacher.
Madhu Sharma, Preeti’s teacher, was able to immediately get in touch with her family and convince them to not get their daughter married off.
Preeti has now gone back to attending her online classes. She is still irregular because there aren’t enough phones at home but the conversation on her marriage has ended, for now.
The 13-year-old goes to Pardada Pardadi Educational Society’s Inter College, an all-girls school in Uttar Pradesh that teaches its 1,500 students on how to be a feminist. The school is in Bulandshahr district, the place infamous for its low child sex ratio of 896, as compared to the national average of 940; poor health and low literacy rate for girls.
Preeti was 5 when she joined the school. Besides learning English and Maths, Preeti was told that she needs to demand her rights and not meekly accept her fate. The girls, in this school, are taught to ask uncomfortable questions at home: “Why am I served less food than my brother?” “Why should I stop studying?”
In Anupshahr, a town of about 350,000 scattered in dozens of villages, the environment isn’t kind to women. Marred by poverty and notorious for its violent crimes, women here face routine discrimination, abuse and violence. Female illiteracy is widespread and only a small fraction of women there ever complete the eighth grade.
Pardada Pardadi Educational Society
The school is unique. Every morning, in their morning assembly, the girls take a pledge: Hum zaroor shadi karenge lekin dusvim pure karne ke bad (We will get married, but after completing the tenth grade). In rural Uttar Pradesh, at least 54% girls are married off before they turn 18.
Besides offering free education, Pardada Pardadi also provides study material, uniform, stationery, health facilities, transportation and 3 meals a day, free of cost. A daily scholarship of Rs 10 is transferred to each girl’s account per day of attendance from class 6th onwards for her higher education. From class 9, the amount is increased to Rs 15.
“All the girls are from socially underprivileged society. That is why we offer these benefits so it acts as a driving force for parents to continue sending their daughters to school,” said Renuka Gupta, CEO, Pardada Pardadi Educational Society.
At the entrance of the school, there’s a hand-painted sign asking an important, yet ignored question, “Have you loved your daughters today?”
Bulandshahr is usually in the news for the wrong reasons, and most often, for crimes against women. Just last month, the Uttar Pradesh district was in the news after a 13-year-old girl was allegedly raped by four men in a village. A few weeks before that, a 15-year-old girl was allegedly gang-raped by 10 youngsters in Chacheri village while she was returning from her cousin’s wedding. A few days before, upset over police inaction, an 18-year-old took her own life; she had reported of rape the previous year.
The school in the middle of Bulandshahr is one of the few places that offers safe, welcoming spaces. But then, the pandemic hit and all the girls were forced to remain inside the confines of their homes, many of them not so safe.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit India, forcing schools shut since the end of March, more than 1.5 billion children stopped going to school. The private schools started online education; some government schools followed. However, it meant very little to large parts of the country where digital India is still a dream, making difficult lives of young girls more challenging. The fear of school dropouts and early marriages soon started unfolding into a nightmarish reality.
A few weeks into the lockdown, a 15-year-old Rinki was forced to drape herself in a saree to meet her prospective in-laws. Later in the afternoon, she managed to sneak out and make a call to her teacher from her neighbour’s phone. Rinki’s teacher immediately got in touch with the police and the Child Welfare Committee, who then met the parents and took an undertaking from them to not get their daughter married before she turns 18. A few days later, Rinki made another phone call to her teacher. Her parents were trying to get her younger sister married off to the family they had decided to marry Rinki off too. “The CWC was monitoring Rinki’s case closely, so the parents wouldn’t be able to get away with marrying her off. They thought now that they had already met the family, they can get at least one of their daughters married,” said Madhu Sharma, a teacher with PPES.
The increasing reports of child marriage aren’t surprising. There was a dramatic upswing in child marriages and trafficking following the Nepal earthquake in 2015. After the Ebola crisis, the number of girls who dropped out of schools almost tripled in countries that suffered. Following the 2004 tsunami, girls in Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka were forced into marriage with tsunami widowers and in many instances did so to receive state subsidies for marrying and starting a family. In Bangladesh and northeast India, there's enough evidence to show that increased extreme poverty provoked by river erosion and floods often push families to adopt child marriage as a survival strategy.
Pardada Pardadi Educational Society
Worldwide, an estimated 12 million girls are married every year before the age of 18, which amounts to nearly one girl every three seconds. The UN has warned that the pandemic could lead to an extra 13 million child marriages over the next decade. An additional four million girls are at risk of child marriage in the next two years because of the coronavirus pandemic, a report by global charity World Vision has warned, as deepening poverty is likely to drive many families to marry off their daughters. The report also warns that up to 85 million children face physical, sexual and emotional violence at home and in their communities over the next three months as the financial and emotional pressures of the pandemic worsen.
“The pandemic has made education a very tricky situation,” said Gupta. “Our school’s girls are stuck inside their homes and it gets difficult for us to keep tab as most of them do not have access to phones,” she said. The online classes are on, but without access to smartphones, many are simply dependent on the notes that PPES has started to deliver.
“One of the biggest lessons that we give in our school is to support each other—and it is that lesson that brought forward many cases that teachers and school authorities would be unaware of,” Gupta said, narrating how students looked out for their peers and reported at the slightest hint of any trouble at home. “We kept in touch with some of them who had access to phones and encouraged them to reach out to their classmates,” she said.
It was this support system that prevented many child marriages.
Days after the online classes began, 15-year-old Priyanshi was made the class monitor. When the teacher noticed that one of the girls, who earlier attended classes regularly, was missing for a few days, she asked Priyanshi to check on her. “When I called her, she didn’t tell me anything. She just said she didn’t have time. But I suspected something was wrong. So I kept calling her,” Priyanshi said over a phone call. A relentless Priyanshi kept calling her classmate till she finally confided in her about her parents’ wedding arrangements for her. Wasting no time, the 15-year-old informed their teacher who was then able to get police intervention and prevent the marriage.
The academic achievements of Pardada Pardadi’s students, too, is remarkable. All of them passed the tenth- and twelfth-grade exam, compared to only 85% students in Bulandshahr district and Uttar Pradesh in general. The school’s attendance was at 82%, compared to 62% average school attendance for girls in the state. And the dropout rate was at 15.4%, compared to 47.3% of other students in the district.
Gupta, however, emphasises on their model of education and focus on human development. “We teach them the idea of female empowerment and equality at a very early age. That has the effect of cultivating great power in girls.”
At the bus stop next to the school, there are illustrations of a girl in a school uniform and who she might become: politician, doctor, athlete, scientist, teacher, and a policewoman. Preeti has picked her dream—she wants to join the police when she grows up. “I want to be a police so I can stop people from discriminating against girls,” the 13-year-old said.
Priyanshi hasn’t decided on her dream. But she knows she wants her name to be on the school wall that is dotted with photographs of Annie Besant, Kalpana Chawla and Yamini Krishnamurthy.
*Names have been changed to protect the children's identities.