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Wedded to School

Adolescents and Youth, Child Marriage

Article Author: By Gillian Gaynair
Article Date: 2010-07-07

Indian girl who convinced her parents not to marry her when she was a teenager is now pursuing a career as an educator. 


VILLAGE OF DADEGAON, India – Archana Hajare had made her decision, and her parents agreed to let her go. She was nervous, but she knew she had to see this through.

 Archana Hajare

            Archana Hajare

One of her first steps required traveling with her father to a city nearly 150 miles from their village. Once they arrived, Archana would have an interview to consider her admittance to a special training center for prospective teachers.

“My father couldn’t sleep for three nights,” Archana says, “with the thought of whether he should send his daughter off for an education.”

That’s because where Archana is from, most parents traditionally married off their daughters when they were, on average, 16 years old. That doesn’t happen as much these days. Thanks to a decade-long effort by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and its partner, the Institute for Health Management, Pachod (IHMP), many girls in this rural area of some 50 villages are delaying marriage until they’re 17 or older.

Now, more girls remain wedded to their studies and to enjoying their girlhood.

By waiting longer to marry and have children, girls here also are more likely to work outside of the home. They reduce their chances of suffering the medical and emotional risks of giving birth before their bodies and minds are fully ready. And they’re less likely to be exposed to HIV – a common risk of child brides who tend to marry older men who have had sexual partners.

Archana, now 20, is one such success story.

She is from the village of Dadegaon, one of many rural villages in the Aurangabad district of the Indian state of Maharashtra. Here, families earn their living from the land, mainly growing sorghum, millet, sweet limes and cotton. In the height of summer, many fields are dry and brown, save for an occasional splash of color from the saris worn by working women, or from a tiny teal, salmon or yellow Hindu temple rising up from a hillside.

Archana is the third of four siblings in a family that has lived in Dadegaon for 10 generations.

 

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From timid to confident

A somewhat shy girl, Archana says she hardly used to talk to others and sometimes battled with her brothers and sisters. Then in the 7th grade she took part in a year-long IHMP program focusing on life skills, which ICRW evaluated. For an hour every weekday evening, she learned about a variety of topics, from making decisions and managing her time to personal hygiene, reproductive health and nutrition. Social workers met with her parents, too, to talk about what Archana was learning and how to support her.

Archana says the experience helped her become more confident and learn how to communicate better with others, including girls her age.

Two years after finishing the program, Archana’s 9th grade teacher asked the class what they wanted to do when they grew up. Archana spoke up. “I just gathered the courage,” she says, “and (told) the teacher that I want to go for teacher’s training.”

Then in 12th grade, Archana’s teacher encouraged her to apply to the special training center. It was at that time, too, that Archana’s parents talked to her about marriage. She was 18, and they had chosen her cousin – an engineer eight years her senior – to be her husband.

Archana’s parents felt it best that her future husband belong to their extended family to ensure that she’d be treated well by her mother-in-law, who is her aunt. (Once Indian girls marry, they traditionally leave their families to live with their in-laws.)

Despite her parents’ best intentions, Archana told them she wanted to apply to the training center. She convinced them to let her pursue her dream.

“If my daughter has this intense desire to continue her education and be a teacher, then why should I not support her?” says Archana’s father, Kalyanrao Hajare, as he sits on the floor of their home, drinking tea.

“It’s better that I give her a pen in her hand, than a sickle.”

Kalyanrao’s support of Archana’s wishes is uncommon, according to Sunayana Walia, an ICRW senior reproductive health specialist who worked on the program in which Archana participated. However, families that stand by their daughters are less likely to be criticized or ostracized by their community for going against traditional practices, she says.

“It’s very heartening to see fundamental changes in parents who are supportive of their daughters,” Walia says. “Archana and her parents are creating a quiet revolution at the grassroots level that is slowly changing young girls’ lives to lives where they live by their own choices and decisions.”

 Archana’s father, Kalyanrao Hajare
 Archana’s father, Kalyanrao Hajare

A father’s support

The trip that Kalyanrao and Archana took for the initial interview at the center was successful. But still concerned about his decision to let her go, Kalyanrao had a long conversation with the center’s principal. She assured him that she would look out for his Archana.

Today, Archana is in her final year of the two-year training program. She lives away from home and rents a room with two other girls near the center. When she comes home to her village for vacation – as she was recently – she says she feels somewhat disconnected with some of her childhood girl friends. Many of them already are married with children.

“When we sit around, they talk about their own families,” Archana says. “But I have something different to talk about, so I look for girls who are educated.”

These days, she’s focused on preparing for an exam in August that will help her earn her teacher’s training diploma next year. While in that program, Archana also is taking distance learning courses for a bachelor’s degree in Marathi literature; Marathi is the official language of Maharashtra.

Ultimately, she says she’d like to become an administrator in the state education system.

And what about marriage to her cousin or someone else?

“Once I start working, I will decide,” Archana says as her father looks on. “Even if I get married, I’d like to keep my parents with me.”

Her father chuckles at the notion.

“Does that happen in our society?” he says.

Maybe this time around, it will.

Gillian Gaynair is ICRW’s writer/editor.

 

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