Two young Muslim girls from villages of Murshidabad, West Bengal were congratulated by the President of India, Shmt. Pratibha Patil on the 17th of January for their determination to protest against their early marriage.
We wanted to do a story and tell you how education can empower young girls to take charge of their lives. When I went to greet them and hear of their experience firsthand, I thought I would get some good quotes as usual, but what I heard and captured on paper was an experience that cannot be summed up by anything less than a verbatim transcript of the interview.
This interview was taken a few weeks after the felicitation and actual handing over of the certificated by the District Administration at a formal ceremony back in West Bengal.
Munija Khatun, 16, belongs to Village Mahisasthali, District Murshidabad, West Bengal
How did you feel when you were told that you will be congratulated by the President of India?
When our ASHA didi (ActionAid partner staff) told me that I am going to meet the President of India, I was surprised. When she explained further that the President of India is the head of our country and most honoured person in the country and she wants to share her appreciation of our struggles, I was very happy.
What was your family’s reaction?
Initially, my baba (father), just like me, could not understand the importance of it all. When ASHA didi explained it again, he was happy. When they saw my picture in the newspapers, my parents and elder sisters felt very proud.
What did your friends say about all this?
When I stopped my marriage with support from ASHA didi, some of my friends were shocked and stopped talking to me. They thought that I had gone mad. But when the news was published in newspapers and they saw my picture they realized the importance of it all and are now talking with me again.
How was your experience of going to Delhi and meeting the President? What did she say to you?
I had learnt from my school books that Delhi is our country’s capital and that all the ministers and famous persons stay in Delhi. When I heard that I have to go there to meet the President I was very happy. I was also a little tense because we had to go there with our District Protection Officer and no one from ASHA was coming with us to Delhi. It was first time I stayed outside my home without my parents.
But the travel to Delhi was really very enjoyable for me. All the five girls who went to Delhi gathered at Baharampur in the evening on 14th January. We enjoyed the evening and had a wonderful dinner. Early next morning we started for Kolkata by road. I had never before travelled by such a car with a cooling machine.
The train journey really was also very good. Our neighbour’s son who works in Delhi as a mason, and travels 2-3 times a year to Delhi on train, was surprised when I told him that our food and bed was organized by the train.
In Delhi our stay at Bengal Bhavan was really wonderful. At the President’s office too everything was so wonderful. The chair everyone was sitting on was so big and golden in colour. The moment we were all waiting for was when our President Ms. Pratibha Patil entered the room. She is a very kind woman. I have become a great fan of hers. I could not understand her language when she spoke to us. Our Protection Officer translated for us what she said – she congratulated us for being courageous and fighting child marriage and she also told us that we have to continue to work hard in our community to stop this practice. She said that we have to stand in front of everyone “with the flag of new change”. We came back to Baharampur on 19th January and it was really a great experience for me.
What do you think about your future now? What do you want to become or do when you become older? When will you get married now?
I learnt from my school books that our bodies develop up to 20 years of age, and I also understood the bad effects of early marriage and early pregnancy from ASHA didi. I understood all this only because I am able to read and write, which is why now my only aim is to complete my studies.
I want to go to college, and after that I will become either ASHA didi or a School Teacher, because I think both of them are teaching us the good things. I am not thinking about marriage at all. I have to do something in my life.
How difficult was it when you had to protest against your early marriage?
It was really very difficult. My parents are orthodox and they think that the only way a woman can lead a secure life is if she is married. When I first protested my father become very angry and slapped me. But I did not stop protesting and told my parents that I am not ready for marriage. When my family did not listen to me, I informed ASHA didi and she met my parents. The very next day the groom’s party came to our house for final planning and they gifted me a ring. I went to ASHA didi again, and she came along with other women in the group and spoke very strongly to my parents and told them that they are violating laws that protect child rights, and that child marriage is a punishable offence. My parents were convinced after a long discussion.
Our staff also interviewed a few of Munija’s friends
Do you find it encouraging that your friend’s struggle was recognized?
Our parents fixed our marriages as they thought was right. If we had chosen someone we’d have to face difficulty. When we found that Munija was fighting to stop her marriage, we thought that she had lost her mind. But Munija really has created history. Everybody is praising her and she was even felicitated by the President of our Country. I am Proud of her now and I am ready to follow her path and I will struggle to stop early marriage in our community too.
Would you put a similar fight for yourself or other girls you know?
We have seen that change is possible and we are ready to put up a similar struggle now.
Tuktuki Khatun, 15 years old, Village Kashimnagar, Murshidabad, Pashchim Banga, dropped out of school at a young age. But her friends who have been able to continue their schooling joined hands with her and saved her from an early marriage. Tuktuki and her parents are now trying to get her back into school.
How did you feel when you were told that your struggle was being recognized by the President of India?
When our ASHA didi first gave me the news I was surprised because I could never imagine that my broken marriage would bring me appreciation. But I was happy to meet the President of our Country and now I am also famous.
What has been your family’s reaction to this felicitation?
My father is still unhappy, though my picture in the newspaper is now the main topic of discussion in our family. My mother was unable to express her happiness in front of my father, but I know that she I happy.
What did your friends say?
When my marriage did not happen my friends had stopped talking to me. But when my picture came in the newspaper they came and started talking to me. I think now they are happy.
How was the experience of going to Delhi and meeting the President? What did she say?
It was a wonderful experience. I never have travelled by this kind of car or train before. When I reached the President’s office I was little nervous, but our President was really wonderful. She spoke very softly and politely. I liked the President’s house also. I am very vey happy. She told us that what we did was really good and we have to work hard to prevent child marriage in our area.
How difficult was it when you had to protest against your early marriage?
I was almost married, but the Adolescent Reflect Circle of our area prevented the marriage. They first tried to convince my parents to stop the marriage, but when they found that my parents are not going to listen to them, they informed the District Social Welfare Officer (DSWO) who brought the police to our place and stopped the marriage. Now we understand why we should not allow child marriage. Now I will also fight like Munija didi if someone tries to marry off their daughter at an early age.
Tuktuki’s friend Ajnara Khatun, 14 years old, studying in class 9 led the Adolescent Reflect Circle – a group of young girls who are brought together by ActionAid partner to discuss issues that affect their lives and rights as children and young girls. Ajnara was asked:
Why did you think it necessary to save your friend from child marriage? What do you think about Tuktuki being felicitated by the President?
Tuktuki was unable to voice her views and feelings due to family pressure. If we as a group did not stop her marriage she would have been married. Now she realizes this and ready to be with us in our struggle for preventing child marriage. It feels great that our efforts have been recognized. We will continue to fight child marriage.