Open windows of opportunity

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Open windows of opportunity

Friday, 08 February 2019 | Swapna Majumdar

Open windows of opportunity

Given the spread of the internet and the vast reach of faith leaders, we must make use of these platforms to send strong messages about empowering women and girls

About nine lakh children die before their first birthday in India. Many of them are born to underage mothers, who were neither mentally nor physically prepared for early marriage and quick motherhood. Although efforts to end child marriage have resulted in a decline in the number of child marriages with 27 per cent of girls (approximately 1.5 million) getting married before they turn 18 as compared to 47 per cent of girls a decade ago (2005-06), India cannot afford to take its foot off the pedal given the life changing impact this practice has had on the lives of young girls.

There is enough evidence to show that when a girl is forced to marry before she attains adulthood, she faces immediate and life-long consequences. It is not just that the odds of her finishing school decrease (only 33 per cent of girls manage to complete seven years of education), chances of being abused by her husband, too, increase.The recent National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) revealed that one of five married adolescent girls (15-19 years) experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence in their marriage. Moreover, the probability of her suffering complications during pregnancy also went up. Conversely, a 10 per cent reduction in child marriage reduces neo-natal mortality by four percentage points and brings down the under-five mortality rate by nine percentage points. If the age of the mother is less than 20 years, the infant mortality rate (IMR) is 52.1 per cent. But when the age of the mother is between 20-29 years, IMR declines to 37 per cent.

Then why do child marriages persist? There are several intertwining reasons why such practice continues in many States. Poverty and low socio-economic status lead families, experiencing economic difficulties, to believe that the younger the bride, the smaller the dowry. Another important reason for the perpetuation of child marriage is prevailing social and religious customs. Here, religious leaders and faith-based organisations can play a critical role in shaping opinions and influencing social behaviour to end child marriage. This is especially so as religious beliefs underpin values and practices. Religious institutions and faith-based organisations have the power, resources, networks and capacity to reach out and transform thinking. They can even debunk myths related to faith-based beliefs, traditions and practices.

Last month, faith leaders from across the country gathered at the Kumbh mela in Prayagraj to engage with the ways to end child marriage and empower women. A roundtable meeting brought together faith leaders, majority of them women, to discuss their role in ensuring equal treatment of girls and reinforced the fact that there was no religious basis for regressive cultural norms responsible for the practice of child marriage. Many of them shared their experiences in the States where their ashrams were based and said that they had been able to persuade communities to send their girls to school, thus delaying marriage. Organised under the aegis of the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance (GIWA), the world’s first initiative to bring together faith leaders as allies in efforts to push for change, and Parmarth Niketan, the meeting, supported by UNICEF and the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), also focussed on raising awareness in Uttar Pradesh where one in every five girls is a child bride. Faith leaders, however, agreed that efforts must be made not just in the 20 districts of the State that had a higher incidence of child marriage than the national average but in the entire country.

The first step in this direction was a pledge undertaken by all spiritual leaders to do their bit in ensuring a safe and secure future for girls in the country. They were joined by over 300 people, including political leaders, women, men, young people, NCC cadets and students, who promised to speak up against child marriage. A signature campaign was launched to promote ‘Yes to Education, No to Child Marriage’. The move is hoping to gather enough signatures to create a Guinness record  and accelerate the momentum to end child marriage.

This is perhaps the first time that faith leaders across the religious spectrum have united against child marriage and was a much-needed initiative. That faith leaders can change mindsets has been proven in the successful campaign against polio. After sensitisation on the issue by UNICEF and its partners, 8,500 mosques agreed to support the polio programme, 85 per cent of which disseminated polio messages. Graduates of 400 madrasas and religious institutions across the country promised to further advocate for the polio programme upon joining a mosque as an imam or becoming a religious leader. Banners endorsed by local religious institutions and distribution of 60,000 booklets, highlighting that vaccination was in keeping with Islam during the festival of Shab-e-barat, made a big difference. An increase in both coverage and knowledge about routine immunisation in high-risk areas was primarily possible because engaged religious leaders and hajjis helped change mindsets and attitudes towards immunisation.

 Ending open defecation is another area where faith leaders have been active. About 300 renowned faith leaders from Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism joined hands to start an inter-faith movement in 2014 to end open defecation. This strategy, which evolved from a partnership between Parmarth Niketan (secretariat for Global Interfaith WASH Alliance in India) and UNICEF, is also addressing taboo subjects like menstrual hygiene management.

Kishanganj in Bihar is a good example of how decisions made by faith leaders can make or break lives of girls. In Mirbhatta village, a majority of its predominantly Muslim population were illiterate. Traditionally, girls here never went to school and married young. It was believed by the religious leaders that girls would get ‘polluted’ if they went to school. Since local religious leaders played a crucial role in all important decisions pertaining to the community, including marriage and education, it was imperative to get them on board if change was to be made.

A two-pronged strategy was employed. First the parents of girls were sensitized about the need for education at non-formal education (NFE) centres. Parents were invited every week to see what their children were learning and its outcomes. Once their trust was gained, parents were encouraged to convince religious leaders to promote education of girls and end child marriage. Not only did they manage to get the faith leaders to rally around, it also led to classes being held for girls in the madrasas.

This awareness and cooperation, coupled with other literacy programmes, has contributed to turning Kishanganj around from having the lowest literacy rate — 31.1 per cent in 2001 to 55.5 per cent in 2011. The girl to boy student ratio has gone up.

In fact, in this era of new-age technology, it makes good sense to enlist the support of faith leaders considering their active presence on social media. Recently, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of the Art of Living Foundation released ‘Art of Living’ mobile app. This is the first subscription-based spiritual app in the country, according to a report in Factor Daily. Not far behind are popular faith leaders Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev of Isha Foundation and Baba Ramdev, the yoga guru-cum entrepreneur. They also have their own digital platforms to promote their ideologies.

The number of followers across different social media platforms is testimony to their popularity and influence. Sri Ravi Shankar has over four million followers on Twitter. Sadhguru has over two million followers on YouTube and a million people follow him on Instagram. Over 10 million people follow Ramdev on Facebook. So faith-based messaging to promote gender equality can now reach out to millions of followers with just a click of a button.

India has over 460 million internet users. It is adding 10 million active users every month. Over 115 million users spend considerable time on social media. Given these statistics and considering the influence and reach of faith leaders, the opportunity to send strong messages for empowerment of girls and women, promoting reproductive and sexual health and rights and ending child marriage, must not be lost.

(The writer is a senior journalist)

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