It is easy to miss out Simalbari. Hidden between yellow mustard fields and green tea gardens, it is not hard to see why this Santhal hamlet in rural Kishanganj, Bihar, is not very popular with government officials. The dusty track leading to the tribal community is narrow and uneven. Electricity too, is a distant dream here. Yet, a change is taking place, albeit slowly and silently.
In a state where 60 per cent of the girls are married before the age of 18 years, adolescent girls of Simalbari are beginning to stand up against early marriage.
When 15-year old Radha Hemdar refused to give up her studies and get married, it sent ripples of shock in her community. It was hard for the illiterate tribal hamlet to understand why Hemdar was ruining her life by giving up the golden opportunity of marrying a 'good' boy for the sake of studies. But Hemdar remained steadfast.
Thanks to her determination, she has become the first in many generations of Santhals in that hamlet to reach Class 9. "If I have to get married and work in the tea gardens for the rest of my life just like everyone else in my community, what is then the point of studying? I am studying because I want to become something and also because I know that early marriage is not good for my health," says Hemdar.
In fact, Hemdar has inspired a few more young girls in her hamlet to follow in her footsteps. Several girls between the ages of 10 - 14 years have told their parents they do not want to forsake their studies for marriage before they are 18 years old. "It is convictions like these that has given us hope that our work with these adolescent girls on reproductive and sexual health is finally bearing fruit", said Sayeeda Hussain, chairperson, Azad India Foundation (AIF).
But the path has not been easy for AIF, a non governmental organisation working on adolescent reproductive and sexual health (ARSH). Funded by the National Foundation for India (NFI), this ARSH project, which began in 2003 in 15 villages in Kishanganj, has seen numerous twists and turns. There have been several times during the past three years when AIF field workers have almost given up in frustration.
One of their biggest challenge came from a rural village Mirbhatta in Powakhali block. A majority of Mirbhatta, a predominantly Muslims village, is illiterate. Girls are married young and have no control over their bodies or their number of children. Local religious leaders or maulanas play a crucial role in influencing decisions for the community. "The maulana of this village opposed all our efforts to talk about ARSH. He argued that young girls would become `polluted' by information about their bodies or talking about reproductive and sexual health," recounted Parwez Raza, AIF field supervisor.
So pervasive was the maulana's influence that even his brother Qurban Ali, an influential community leader and one-time AIF ally, also resisted any ARSH intervention. But AIF workers did not give up. They just changed their strategy.
Instead of talking about ARSH, they decided to use their existing non-formal education (NFE) centres as a platform to gather the parents of the students. Since the centre was next to Ali's house, he along with other parents was invited every week to see what their children were learning. After four weeks AIF workers asked the parents if they were satisfied with what their children had learnt. If they had the confidence that their children would not be taught anything wrong, they (the parents) should give the NGO a chance to talk about ARSH.
It was then that Ali changed his mind. "In the beginning I was opposed to it because many people in the community including my brother was against it. But after AIF explained that our children would be able to protect themselves by learning about the biological and behavioural changes that take place when girls and boys reach puberty, I realised I was wrong in resisting them. Now I have convinced my maulana brother also to end his opposition," said Ali.
Although it took several meetings to bring around Ali and the small group of parents whose children attended the NFE centres, AIF was quick to realise that they could sustain the intervention only if a member of that community spearheaded the initiative. So they decided to train Ali's daughter, 17-year old Marguba, as an ARSH peer educator.
This was a smart move considering most of adolescent girls in the village see Marguba more as a friend than teacher. With many parents still reluctant to send their girls to the ARSH classes, AIF is hoping this friendship will attract these girls too. But 55-year old AIF worker, Madhuri Das, needed more than just perseverance when she was given the duty to introduce ARSH to village Mohiuddinpur. Despite being a more affluent, educated and urbanised village, the mindset of its residents was no different from rural Mirbhatta. Here too, the maulvi was opposed to any discussion on ARSH. Matters came to such a pass here that the petite bespectacled Das had to don an aggressive avatar to counter the hostility. "I am follower of goddess Kali. I realised that I had to be equally aggressive if I was to succeed in my mission. So I kept at it despite the abuses and taunts. Even when some people pelted stones at me, I did not run away. I told them I was ready to face anything. Fortunately, the maulvi finally understood that what we wanted to teach the girls would help them to look after their health before they took on the responsibility of child-bearing," revealed Das.
Once AIF was able to win over the maulvi, the 70-year old religious leader invited Das to hold the classes in his madarsa. "The Koran says that if need be one should go to China to acquire education. So why not the madarasa? Although chairs are not permitted in the place where the Koran is kept or recited, we just take the Koran from the verandah to another room when the classes are held," said Maulvi Gyasuddin.
However, not all religious leaders have been helpful. AIF has had to close down three of its centres because of resistance from both Muslim and Hindu religious leaders. Nevertheless, AIF believes that without religious leaders on their side, it will be difficult to make a breakthrough.
The district of Kishanganj ranks 588 out of 590 districts in the country on the reproductive and child health (RCH) index according to a government survey of 1998-99. Though its efforts are showing results, they have a long way to go. Their lessons on nutrition, personal hygiene and family planning will be of little use unless they also include adolescent boys and newly married couples. Equally important is the need to design stronger linkages with the local health delivery systems. AIF's biggest advantage is the rapport and trust that it has built with the community with which it works. But to turn this advantage into a successful strategy, it must develop better tools to monitor and evaluate its work. Only then can their interventions be more meaningful and sustainable.