Purnima (name changed) of Tamtara village in Odisha’s Gajapati district was just 15 when she left home in November 2021 to marry a lad from the same village she adored.
When the local anganwadi worker learned about it, she made certain that Purnima was counselled about the risks of being married at such a young age. She also agreed not to marry before she reached the age of 18. She now studies at a state-sponsored dormitory for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe youngsters in Rayagada, the block in which her native Gandahati village is located.
A brief about Odisha’s Gajapati district was transformed from a high-burden to a ‘child marriage-free’ district
There were many like Purnima in tribal habitations of Gajapati, which was once a high-burden district for child marriage but has been certified “child marriage-free”. Gajapati became the state’s second such district, following Ganjam. Ganjam, the most populated district, was granted the status in January 2022.
The achievement occurred amid Assam’s widespread crackdown on child marriage.
A target-based initiative that has been running for the past year and a half, the participation of community leaders and panchayati raj institution members, village-specific programmes, a mass sensitization programme against the negative effects of child marriage on an individual’s mental and physical development, and some innovative steps have all contributed to the administration declaring the district child marriage-free.
In the past two years, no girl or boy married before the legally marriageable ages of 18 and 21, respectively, in any of the 1,710 villages in the district’s 149 panchayats and the 29 wards of two civic bodies—Paralakhemundi and Kashinagar—a key criterion for declaring a district child marriage-free, according to district collector Lingaraj Panda.
“Every person on the team dedicated to avoid child marriages has created something to attain the child-marriage-free district tag. Since 2019, the district government has thwarted 103 child marriage attempts,” Panda told The Indian Express.
The administration has requested technical assistance from Actionaid, a non-governmental organisation, in order to eliminate child marriage in the area.
Every community has a child protection committee comprised of anganwadi workers and certified social health activists (ASHA) who act as the first responder to child marriage attempts. It identifies vulnerable homes with adolescent girls and tracks girls who have dropped out or are missing from school for an extended period of time, as well as families with three to four daughters.
Bikash Kumar Meher, the district coordinator for the prevention of child marriage for Actionaid, said the village-level committee educated such households about the social evil.
“The administration has also supplied a marriage record in each anganwadi centre, where the ages of boys and girls, invitation cards, and other information are kept. “Since child marriage is a societal issue, and a sizable section of the tribal community lives in Gajapati, we have enlisted the help of local panchayati raj institution members, who can persuade the family more effectively,” Meher explained.
Meher stated that awareness campaigns were also held at temples and churches to ensure that no girls or boys married before the legally acceptable age. Registers were also handed to religious institutions to record marriages performed on their premises.
In October 2019, the Department of Women and Child Development launched a strategic action plan with UNICEF support to end child marriage by 2030.
According to the National Family Health Survey 4, released in 2015-16, the prevalence of child marriage among girls in Odisha is 21.3 percent, compared to the national average of 26.8 percent, and only 11 percent for boys, compared to the national average of 20.3 percent.
According to NFHS-4, one in every five women aged 20-24 years in Odisha were married by the age of 18, whereas one in every ten men were married before the age of 21, indicating that early marriage in ladies was double that in boys.
According to official sources, Odisha has certified approximately 10,000 of the entire 47,000 villages in various districts as child marriage-free villages.