There is a weak smile on Hamida's face … a smile that doesn't reach her eyes. Today is supposed to be the happiest day of her life.
But how can she really feel happy? This 15-year-old girl has been taken from school to marry a man she will meet for the first time today at her wedding ceremony – a rich farmer more than twice her age. His first wife died during childbirth, and his 3-year-old daughter needs a mother. He also wants a son to inherit his land and cattle.
This is the reality for many poor girls like Hamida living in Moyna, a rural community in the east Midnapore district, approximately 150 kilometers (95 miles) from Kolkata, India.
The color of the earth here is red, and history scholars claim that the area received its name from the Sanskrit (an ancient Indian language) word Tamra Lipta, meaning "full of copper." In most regions of India, the color red is worn by brides and symbolizes purity, health and wealth. But for many young impoverished girls, becoming a bride happens too soon.
According to the India 2001 census, there are an estimated 1.5 million girls in India under the age of 15 who are already married. UNICEF defines child marriage as marriage before 18 years of age and considers this practice as violation of human rights. (http://www.unicef.org/protection/57929_58008.html)
For several years, our project partner, Child In Need Institute (CINI)-Moyna, has been working with our agency to help the vulnerable mothers and children in this district.
Unfortunately, Hamida was not a sponsored child, and her parents had never heard of our organization. However, there are sponsored teen girls enrolled in our program who would have met the same fate had it not been for the swift intervention of CI staff working with our CINI project manager, Jibananda Das.
Here is one story:
8 p.m., March 11 – Jibananda received a call from a youth leader informing him that an illegal child marriage was going to happen on March 15. The teenager was one of our sponsored children.
"I was in another state attending an orientation program on child rights and protection," reported Jibananda. "Yet, I did not give up hope. I immediately telephoned our social worker and asked her to give me all the details of the child, her parents' names and address. I emphasized the urgency of the matter."
The social worker understood the gravity of the situation. The community has almost no electricity in the streets, and so in the darkness of the evening, she bicycled to the office to gather all the information and pass it on.
Armed with the details of the child, Jibananda contacted the East Midnapore Child Help Line and also informed the Protection Officer (Non Institutional Care) of the District Child Protection Office, keeping in touch with them throughout the night.
Representatives of Child Line were also attending the same training with Jibananda, and they took action and began calling their team members to take immediate steps and provide regular updates.
March 12 – Instructions were sent from the administration to the officer-in-charge of Moyna Police Station to take necessary steps. The Block Development Officer (BDO) of Moyna Development Block was also sent an urgent message and instructed to act immediately.
By late afternoon, representatives from Child Line, Moyna Police Station and the BDO arrived at the house of the teenager for firsthand verification. After a confirmation of the impending marriage, the BDO immediately ordered the parents to appear in the office with the child's original birth certificate.
March 14 – Upon review, government officials discovered the girl was only 13 years old. The parents were ordered to call off the wedding, and Child Line representatives counseled them about the impact of child marriage and punishments they could face under the Indian law.
The child's parents were required to sign a written contract to the BDO in the presence of the police and Child Line representatives, affirming that they would not allow their daughter to marry until she turned 18.
Thanks to several youth awareness and empowerment programs, peer caring, information sharing and the sponsorship program, another forced marriage like Hamida's was prevented. Experiences like this one are a stark reminder why Children International is deeply committed to protecting children and promoting the empowerment of young girls by supporting the continuation of education and offering resources that enable future employment and self-reliance.