What would you do if you found out that an 11-year-old girl in your town was about to get married?
What if you were only 11 years old yourself?
When Sita learned that her friend Pooja was engaged to be married to a much older man, she had every reason in the world to do what was expected of her – nothing at all. But Sita is anything but what you might expect. This 11-year-old is among the top students in her class. She attends every meeting of the ChildFund club in her community, where she has learned about the importance of speaking up when a child is in danger. For her, silence was not an option.
Sita lives in the slums of Firozabad, the center of India’s booming glassmaking industry. Hundreds of children here are engaged in child labor, forced to miss school and work at home in hot, hazardous conditions to help their families make the glass bangles they depend on for income. A lesser known but equally rampant problem in the area is child marriage.
In India overall, 27 percent of girls are married before their 18th birthday – and 7 percent are married before the age of 15. As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, which has exacerbated poverty in already struggling communities, rates of child marriage in India are rising. Being married at a young age entails lifelong and dangerous risks for girls, often compromising their health, cutting their education short and leaving them vulnerable to abuse.
ChildFund India is working to change this in part by empowering young people themselves to raise their voices against child marriage. In Firozabad, for example, ChildFund and our local partner organization recently held several trainings for children on “How to Be a Child Reporter.” The three-day trainings offered kids ages 7-14 from 30 different slums in Firozabad the chance to come together and express their thoughts on problems related to children’s rights – then actively address those problems within their own communities. Through a combination of play and instruction, kids learned how to identify violations of children’s rights, notify the authorities about them and even write reports on them to raise public awareness.
Between January and September 2020, children wrote more than 250 of these reports, shedding light on food insecurity, child labor and other problems affecting their communities. One of these reports was Sita’s.
Sita was attending one of the child reporter trainings when she learned that her friend Pooja had dropped out of school and was engaged to be married. She could hardly believe her ears. The training had taught her to recognize the gaps between children’s rights and their reality, and she knew that such an early marriage would violate her friend’s right to her childhood.
“All of us went and tried reasoning with Pooja’s mother that she is too young to get married, and that her studies are important,” Sita says. “But she wouldn’t listen to us.”
Thanks to her training, Sita knew what to do next. She and her friends called India’s ChildLine number, 1098. “Soon, the officials came and spoke to Pooja’s mother,” she says. “Only then did she finally call off the wedding.”
Later, Sita also helped Pooja enroll in a government school. “Pooja is 11 years old – she needs to study and play,” Sita says. “Besides, we know that child marriage is illegal!”
Thanks to Sita’s great courage, Pooja is now safe and back in school where she belongs. As for Sita, she is still using her reporting skills to raise awareness of the challenges kids face in her community. She wants to be a doctor when she grows up – and she dreams of the day when Firozabad can be a safe place for children.