Un-tying the knot to save girls

Udaipur woman Usha Chaudhary has launched a crusade against child marriage in state’s tribal belt and dedicated her life to girls’ education, writes Rajesh Asnani
Usha Chaudhary
Usha Chaudhary

RAJASTHAN: If you want to know the burden of child marriage, ask Usha Chaudhary of Udaipur district in Rajasthan. At the age of 14 years, Usha fought a long battle to stop her marriage. She was born when her mother was barely 15. Usha is the eldest of four siblings. Usha is now working in the tribal-dominated areas of southern Rajasthan. The tribal belt is infamous for child marriages. She takes pains to explain to the half-literate villagers that decisions such as education, job and marriage are a girl’s exclusive domain.

When she was studying in the tenth standard, her family members told her that she would be married off in a couple of months. Usha was, however, determined to continue her studies. “I saw the life of my mother and several others who got married early. Therefore, I refused to marry and continued my studies.”

That was easier said than done. Her family held her responsible for “spoiling the honour” of the family. “For me, it was a question of life and death – it was better to be killed rather than die a slow death by agreeing to marry as a child,” Usha recalls the severe tension that built within her.

She was the best sportsperson in her school and even played for the state in handball. To continue her struggle, she left school from class 11 and started teaching in a school. She also took up tuitions and courier work to earn money needed to continue her studies. Eventually, Usha studied privately and completed her MA. By then, her determination against child marriage became her resolve to prevent young daughters from falling into the evil practice.

To begin with, Usha opened a school for children of Valmiki Samaj who were involved in cleaning people’s homes and toilets. The dropout rate and child marriages are very high among STs and other deprived sections. Then she joined Aastha, an organization that worked for the uplift of widows and tribal women. In 2003, she formed ‘Vikalp’ and decided to dedicate her life to girls’ education and preventing child marriage. She remains unmarried.

Usha has formed over 100 groups in about 110 villages in 12 districts of Rajasthan. In these groups, girls and boys aged between eight and 20 years are taken and together they are involved in preventing child marriages. These groups dissuade villagers by narrating multiple disadvantages of child marriage, besides the relevant laws.

She says she and her team of volunteers go to schools and villages twice a month and meet groups of kids. “Whenever a boy or a girl joins us, they take the pledge that they will not accept child marriage nor will they leave studies and tolerate any kind of harassment,” says Usha.

In her campaign, she often faces opposition, especially from girls’ families. While performing street plays on themes of child marriage, she and her team were attacked by locals. Undeterred by violence, her team has been able to save thousands of girls and boys from the clutches of child marriage.

Usha’s group also helps to make girls self-sufficient by arranging their education. They regularly advise the girls on what subject and what degrees they can acquire and how. “We connect tribal girls and women with achievers like women collectors, police officers, teachers and women doctors and engineers. Such interactions are quite motivational,” says Usha. In her campaign, Usha says her group also offers career counselling for girls. Some tribal girls connected with Usha are preparing for competitive exams.

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The New Indian Express