When I was 17 years old and getting ready to go to university, the majority of Indian girls my age were preparing for an entirely different event — their marriages. Even now, three decades later, most girls in rural India are pulled out of school and married, quite often against their wishes, before they are old enough to vote.
Such early marriages are a tragedy not just for these girls but for society as a whole. They are a stumbling block in India’s development. It is widely accepted that child marriage has a negative impact on young mothers and their children, leaves girls financially and socially disempowered, and vulnerable to child labor, trafficking and other forms of exploitation. In fact child marriages and low education levels perpetuate generational cycles of ill health, illiteracy and poverty.
Too often child marriage has been dismissed as intractable. Too often governments around the world have limited their role to merely outlawing the practice without addressing the attitudes that underlie it. And too often, the development community has dealt with this issue by focusing solely on girls’ short-term vulnerabilities.
Legal sanctions are not adequate to deal with what is essentially a socially endorsed act of discrimination against the girl child. Eradicating child marriage needs solutions that address the immediate needs and vulnerabilities of girls and also have the potential of influencing their lives in the long term.
My state, West Bengal, has two promising programs I’m eager to share: the first is Kanyashree Prakalpa, an initiative of the state, and the other is a scheme for the Empowerment of Adolescent Girls, which is commonly referred to as SABLA.
In October 2013, the government of West Bengal launched Kanyashree Prakalpa, a conditional cash transfer scheme that provides every indigent female student between the ages of 13 and 18 with an annual scholarship, and a one-time grant of 25,000 rupees ($400) on her 18th birthday. The stipulation being, of course, that she be unmarried at the time of receiving the benefits.
So far almost 3 million girls have enrolled in Kanyashree Prakalpa. They feel enormously enabled — it is not just the prospect of receiving money that excites them, but that they receive it in bank accounts that are opened in their names. It has put on hold their parents’ quest for a suitable groom. Most important, it has given them the opportunity to start a new dialogue with their parents, a dialogue in which they dare to speak of their future identities forged through continued education and professional training, identities which may — or may not — include marriage.
SABLA, on the other hand, is implemented in Cooch Behar, a district in West Bengal, in partnership with the nonprofit land rights organization Landesa, is designed with the immediate imperative of meeting adolescent girls’ nutritional needs and ensuring that they stay in school, with an eye on the long-term objectives of ensuring that they know and experience their rights — especially their rights to land.
Why land rights?
Because we know that like educating girls, strengthening women’s right to land has a strong ripple effect. It can help us meet a host of developmental challenges, from nutrition (children whose mothers have secure rights to land are less likely to be malnourished) to poverty (women with secure rights to land have higher savings rates). Positioning these girls to enjoy land rights when they are adults will give them a resource they need to better care for their families over the long term.
Under the project, workers in West Bengal Anganwadis — government-sponsored centers providing maternal and child care — handle groups of girls who learn about their right to attend school, to not be married before 18 and to assets, such as land. The girls also learn how to use their parents’ small homestead plots to grow vegetables, some of which they sell and some of which are used to supplement the family’s meals. By demonstrating their capabilities beyond what their parents expect of them, they gain some leverage within the family at a critical time in their lives.
Thus far, more than 40,000 girls in 1,000 rural villages of Cooch Behar have participated in the project and the impact has been remarkable. A rigorous evaluation has found that participating girls are more likely to stay in school, more likely to have an asset in their own name and less likely to be a child bride. The project is being scaled to reach 1 million girls over the next three years.
I was fortunate to meet one of these girls. Monika Barman, the subject of a documentary film about this project, told me about how she was making use of every free space in her home, growing mushrooms under her bed, gourds on the rooftop and leafy greens on a couple of small plots beside the house. Her garden was providing her family with nutritious vegetables and she sells the excess produce to pay for tuition. The 17 year old, who dropped out of school when she was 14, wants to enroll again and finish her studies — with some help from Kanyashree Prakalpa, of course.
Here are five guiding principles we see running these two programs that work to change girls’ lives.
1. Look for scalable solutions. We can’t address child marriage one child at a time. There are vehicles for addressing this issue community by community. Consider existing structural levers, including laws and policies, which can be co-opted to deliver information and benefits to girls and their families.
2. Look to build on existing government programs. There is no partner that has a better reach than the government.
3. Address both short-term vulnerabilities and long-term needs. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We need to shepherd the girls through this vulnerable period not just to leave them to marry on the other side at a higher age, but to ensure they are better positioned when they do marry.
4. This is a cross-cutting problem. Focus on developing cross-cutting solutions. In doing so, you’ll ensure a ripple effect.
5. Last and most important, education is key. I mean education in two ways: educating girls about their rights and about their abilities, and ensuring girls stay in school to complete their formal education.
Evidence shows that educating a girl brings better benefits not only to her, but also to her children, her family, community and society. We can and must keep girls in school, bring out-of-school girls back into the classroom and build a better future for them and for India.