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CHARGE OF THE GIRL BRIGADE

Out of 552 initiatives from 62 different countries, Bengal government’s initiative was adjudged the best at The Hague as close to three million girls have benefitted from the Kanyashree scheme, writes Suvashish Moitra.

CHARGE OF THE GIRL BRIGADE

Like her, hate her, or dismiss her – yet, one must be masked in a certain degree of nonchalance to ignore the laudable initiative, Kanyashree Prakalpa, undertaken by the Government of West Bengal, under the leadership of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Recently awarded the United Nations Public Service Award at The Hague, this programme has not only reached out to the destitute girls across the nooks and corners of Bengal but also spread its wings to create ripples across society. Out of 552 initiatives from 62 different countries, the Bengal government's initiative — a targeted conditional cash transfer scheme aimed at retaining girls in schools, and other educational and skill development institutions to prevent early child marriage — was adjudged the best.

Close to three million girls have benefitted from the scheme, as the Bengal government has allocated Rs 1000 crore of its annual budget to ensure that the girls of the state do not fall prey to the evils of today's dark world. These girls who benefitted from the scheme, now popularly termed as the 'Kanyashree Yodhha' have taken it upon themselves to reach out to others in need, in preventing child marriage, where Bengal ranks among the poorest, while also attending to other perils affecting today's youth of Bengal's society.
Incidentally, two other public service schemes of the Bengal government, 'Sabuj Sathi' and 'Yuvashree' also received praise for their effectiveness in addressing pressing social concerns.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, and early propagator of elevating women's condition, in his article 'Ill-effects of Child Marriage' had highlighted how marrying off boys and girls at a young age can hamper their natural growth and health. Almost a century has passed since Vidyasagar made this statement. Yet, his words hold relevance even today, as child marriage in Bengal is still very unfortunately rampant. However, a new brigade of mini Vidyasagars seem to have been born in this era, not in East Midnapore's Birsingha village, where Vidyasagar originated; but, in Hariharpara of Murshidabad, one of the most downtrodden districts of Bengal.
Hariharpara is home to 32 such young Vidyasagars, who are poverty stricken and malnourished, yet, have the conviction and courage that reflect in their bold eyes, to do something different, to bring about a change in the world around them. The young women brigade of Hariharpara stands out amidst a crowd of many. They are popularly known as 'Kanyasree Yoddha' by locals. Possibly, in future, these young girls would be called 'Begum Rokeya' or 'Pritilata'. But surely, Hariharpara is giving shape to a feminist movement far from the glare of political colours.
Most of these girls aged between 15-22 years are students, still strong in their pursuit of higher education. When religious intolerance is rocking the entire nation, this small hamlet in Bengal reflects an encouraging trend of pluralism. The list of names in this women's brigade is a stark testimony to this truth. Shahina Akhtar Banu, Ashapurna Biswas, Sangeeta Biswas, Shampa Hazra, Beauty Dutta, Mallika Khatun, Mariyam Khatun – they all come from different religions, castes and creed, but are united in their identity of 'Kanyasree Yoddha'. They all adorn a blue kameez, white salwar and white churni, their common dress code. Carrying school bags on their back, their collective message ushers in a ray of hope.
Somehow, these girls remind us of the Red Guard Brigade that existed almost 50 years back. Today, Hariharpara is the Freedom Land for all those courageous girls who are inspiring young women and school drop-outs to return to their education, while also taking on a strong stance to prevent child marriage. They raise their voice against atrocities towards women. 'Kanyasree' is a state government project, but these girls who have benefitted from this scheme, are returning the perks they enjoy, multiplied many times over. Here lies the success of this project that is creating a web of inclusive development.
In the last five months, this brigade has stopped 21 child marriages. Girls like Sangeeta Biswas, Fajila Khatun, Barnali Khatun, Aparna Haldar and Ashapurna Biswas have successfully prevented their parents from marrying them off, with the help of Kanyasree soldiers. They have also joined this movement. Take the example of Manira Khatun- fourteen-year-old Manira was trafficked to Mumbai. She called up her mother, who contacted an NGO called CINI (Child in Need Institute). Zakirun Bibi of CINI thereafter took the initiative of bringing back Manira with the collaborated aid of the police. Today, Manira is a Kanyasree Yoddha herself. And so is Sangita Biswas, who was about to be sold off. She is now a student of class VIII.
These days women in the area do not dial 100 to call the police, whenever in trouble they seek the assistance of this strongly motivated girl brigade. The problems they solve are varied. They receive calls from girls whose families are trying to marry them off. If the area from where they receive calls is far off, they seek assistance of the Block Development Officer (BDO).
BDO Purnendu Sanyal provides the team members with his own car so that these young girls can reach the spot on time and prevent the illegal marriage. The young Vidyasagars have to apply various means to ensure their task meets its desired end. At times, counselling is sufficient, but sometimes they are compelled to resort to coercion with the assistance of other villagers. When nothing works, they reach out to the administration for further assistance. The BDO usually sends a police force to stop the illegal, underage marriage. However, in most cases, the brigade themselves are successful in their mission and try to prevent the marriage before wedding arrangements are made, as an attempt to ensure that the girl's father doesn't have to lose out on much money in the process.
One of the leaders of this movement is Zakirun Bibi of CINI. She has always fought for women's rights, and had once even left her in-laws' place for 15 months. She has helped women in setting up bank accounts, acquiring small loans from the government to start small businesses, and become financially independent. Zakirun and her team work to eradicate child marriages, or for that matter, any kind of atrocities that aim to further degrade the position of women in society.
The word Kanyasree Yoddha seems to be quite unique. This term was coined by Samanjit Sengupta, Additional District Magistrate (Development) of Murshidabad. Sengupta himself is deeply involved with the work of this brigade and keeps a tab on these girls' education. Sengupta said: "While discussing in a meeting, this name came up." They have even started a football team with these soldiers. They are all given martial arts classes, along with training in nursing, to ensure that these able girls can become self-reliant in the future, not having to wait at anyone's beck and call.
The Kanyasree Brigade is now a model for the entire Murshidabad, and perhaps should extend its influence to the rest of the state, and later to the rest of the nation. Other than Hariharpara, Suti Block II has another brigade of 40 girls. They too are working against child marriages and trying to bring school dropouts back into the education system. BDO of Suti block, Sandip Bhattacharjee, said: "A lot of children are employed as labourers in the Bidi factories, hence in this area, the number of school dropouts is very high. Worse still, many young boys in the area have become addicted to dendrite and opium." The Kanyasree Yoddhas of Suti block are thus also trying to help these boys through de-addiction programs. They even save children ill-treated by step-mothers, like four-year-old Farida, who was tortured by her step-mother and was compelled to go without food for several days. The brigade has rescued this little girl and enrolled her at a primary school.
Had Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar been alive, he would have undoubtedly blessed these young girls, for they are carrying forward the beacon of his hopes. In his article, he had written, "Oh! Almighty, when will that day arrive when young girls will be rescued from such atrocious customs? However, the movement that has started against child marriage has at least come as a blessing."
May be Vidyasagar had envisaged such a day and penned these lines in praise of the young women of the Kanyasree brigade of Hariharpara who have not allowed his dreams to submerge in the darkness of today's times.
(The story originally written in Bengali had been translated by TaleSpin. Story and photo courtesy: www.getbengal.com)

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