LAKHIMPUR: Kranti Kumari, Ramrati Kumari, Rupa Kumari and Soni Kumari have one thing in common. They are part of a small team performing street plays across this remote and underdeveloped rural pocket of Bihar's Gaya district to educate girls and their parents to say "no" to child marriage.
These girls move from village to village of Lakhaipur panchayat in Mohanpur block -- one of the areas dominated by Maoist extremists -- with their nukkad natak (street play) creating awareness and emboldening adolescent girls to take a stand against marriage before they are 18 years old.
As part of the unique initiative to fight against an age-old menace, rampant in Bihar, the team of nine girls has been performing nukkad natak in more than half-a-dozen villages spread over nearly three to four kilometres in Lakhaipur panchayat, about 19 km from the holiest Buddhist shrine of Bodh Gaya.
But unlike Bodh Gaya, Lakhaipur is altogether a different world. Though connected with rough concrete roads, it resembles an underdeveloped, backward and neglected rural setting. Farmers, mostly marginal, are seen using oxen to plough their fields and life comes to a standstill before sunset.
Two hundred-plus troopers of the elite COBRA battalion of the CRPF still camp in Mohanpur for anti-extremist operations.
Most residents belong to backward castes, particularly poor Yadav and Mahadalit communities.
The girls, all students of a government-run school and residents of Kenduari village, regularly perform the plays 'Gudiya Ka Saapna' (Little Girl's Dream) and 'Shiksha ke Bina Jaan Jaye' (No Life Without Education), spreading the message against child marriage and promoting education and empowerment of girls.
Their leader, Kranti Kumari, terms child marriage a "curse" for all.
"We have been using nukkad natak as a tool to reach out to girls and others directly through entertainment-cum-awareness and education. So far it has been a success. Demand for our nukkad natak has been increasing, though we attack age-old social evils like child marriage and gender discrimination and talk of women's empowerment," said 16-year-old Kranti, daughter of a marginal farmer.
Clad in a simple salwar-kamiz, Kranti admits that the initial days of performing the plays were tough.
"When we started our journey to perform nukkad natak, people were not happy as it was something new in rural areas, unlike urban places where street plays by girls on social issues are not new.
"But our performance, acting and the strong message of the story soon impressed the villagers. And after that we have only received praise," Kranti told IANS.
Ramrati Kumari underlined the strong impact of their plays.
"Child marriage is a big social problem among marginalised Yadavs and Mahadalits, but after our street plays highlighted its negative effect on health and education, several girls have refused to marry.
"A few families have changed their plans and have now decided to marry off their daughters only after they attain 18 years of age. It is a big change for us in a short time," says Ramrati, a class 10 student.
She is the face of the nukkad natak campaign in villages like Bathbigha, Sondiha, Kenduari, Pakaria, Pathra, Manjhauli, Bishanpura and Lakhaipur.
Ramrati is upbeat after her own family extended support to her endeavour to make a difference through their effort.
Kranti has formed a group of 20 girls, named "Khushi", to express their dreams and desires. Similarly, Ramrati has a group of 18 girls christened "Chahat".
The girls received five-day training in performing street plays from a local organisation, the Samagra Seva Kendra (SSK), which is backed by international NGO Save the Children.
"The training helped us motivate other girls to join us. We have performed close to 50 nukkad nataks in villages in a span of less than a year," Kranti said.
Shailender Ram, cluster coordinator of SSK, who is known for moving about on his old bicycle from one village to another to provide support to these girls, said the nukkad natak "also talks about punishment and jail for forcible child marriage".
According to the recent National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4, 2015-16), 39.1 per cent underage girls are still being married off in Bihar. Even so, that's an improvement of 30 percentage points over the 2005-06 figure of 69 percent.