Meet the Assam youths using Facebook, WhatsApp to combat child marriage, change hearts and minds

In several parts of Assam, where child marriage continues to plague society, a group of young people have come together and rescued over 1,000 children with the help of social media. The group, working under the umbrella of the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU), created a network of activists on Facebook and WhatsApp, spread across all districts in the region. The network helps locate incidents of child marriage and, with the aid of local NGOs and police, prevents such weddings from occurring.

 Meet the Assam youths using Facebook, WhatsApp to combat child marriage, change hearts and minds

Activists and police participating in an awareness programme against child marriage in Barepeta village. Image courtesy: Barepeta Childline

“It’s been one year (since the initiative) and our boys have been successful in curbing child marriage to a great extent. We have been able to stop over 1,000 marriages, mostly in districts in western Assam”, said Ainuddin Ahmed, vice president of AAMSU.

Ahmed, who started the initiative in February 2017, with help from a few other members of the student body, said poverty and societal prejudices are behind families wanting to marry off their daughters at an early age.

Concerned about increasing child marriages in Assam, particularly among minority communities, Ahmed came together with a few others to create the group: Forum Against Child Marriage. The group has over 100 members, including student activists, journalists, teachers and government officials. AAMSU members claim child marriages have decreased by almost 50 percent in several rural areas since they created the online forum.

Rafiqul Islam, Barpeta district coordinator for Childline India, a non-government organisation (NGO) which functions under the Ministry of Women and Child Development, said that incidents of child marriages in her district have reduced by 90 percent. In Barpeta, Childline received over 150 reports of child marriages in 2017. In April 2018, they received reports of 19 such incidents, of which, over 80 percent were stopped, said Islam. “This was made possible after we collaborated with all government agencies and activists, including AAMSU and the All Adivasi Students’ Association”, he added.

Shiladitya Chetia, Superintendent of Police (SP), Nalbari district, who was previously posted in Barpeta, said cases of child marriage have reduced by at least 50 percent in the past year. AAMSU members are hopeful they will be able to eradicate the practice completely. Apart from being against the law, child marriage is somewhere deeply rooted in a chauvinistic perception where women are born only to be married off and serve men.

Hasina Ahmed, one of the few women activists working for AAMSU, said parents still consider a girl child a burden.  “This is a tragedy. Several parents from economically weaker communities are of the view that the only purpose of a daughter is to get married into another family; there is no point in spending money to educate them. We need to involve more women in this movement”, she said.

Kalamuddin of Barpeta, whose daughter’s marriage was stopped by AAMSU activists with help from Childline and local police, said he realised his mistake and will now arrange his daughter’s wedding only with her consent. “As my daughter was growing up, I faced constant pressure from family members to find a suitable boy for her and get her married. So, we decided to arrange her wedding. But activists and Childline members arrived and stopped me from proceeding. I now understand the gravity of the situation”, he said. “I will not pressure her anymore. When she thinks it’s time to get married, we will make the necessary arrangements”, he added. After being rescued, Kalamuddin’s 17-year-old daughter has resumed her studies at a nearby madrasa.

Barpeta Childline coordinator Rafiqul Islam takes part in a road show to spread awareness against child marriages in Barepeta village. Image courtesy: Barepeta Childline

Barpeta Childline coordinator Rafiqul Islam takes part in a road show to spread awareness against child marriages in Barepeta village. Image courtesy: Barepeta Childline

While there are several other success stories where AAMSU has been able to save lives and give daughters a second chance, the group said the task has not been easy. “Every now and then we face obstacles; there have been several instances where our members have been threatened and even physically abused; but on the other hand, we have also gotten support from several organisations and individuals”, Ahmed told Firstpost.

Ahmed recalled an incident where a youth activist named Ashraful Hussain was beaten and threatened by a groom's family in Bhoiraguri, Barpeta district. Ahmed said several AAMSU activists had faced physical abuse. “A mob from the groom’s family attacked Ashraful and another activist when they tried to intervene in a wedding involving a minor. Ashraful was held captive till midnight; finally, he was rescued by police”, an AAMSU member said, adding that this is not an isolated incident, and AAMSU activists have faced similar situations in several other districts like Darrang.

But despite all obstacles, Ahmed said that their group members continue to strengthen their drive. “Our boys are marching ahead”, he said, adding that they are optimistic as they can see their efforts yielding results. Wasim Mustak, an AAMSU member who handles the group’s social media pages, said, “It feels great to witness the change. It will take some time before the evil is wiped out completely, but we can see the change happening”.

But Islam said several challenges still need to be overcome. “After they created the network in all rural areas, some people have started to conduct such marriages in secret”, he explained. “I think laws should be strictly implemented. If exemplary punishment is given to culprits, it will be very helpful”, he added. Chetia feels the only way to completely eradicate the social evil is by creating mass awareness.

“If we can involve more people and create awareness among all sections of society, we would be more successful in curbing the practice. We are trying our best. Instant action was taken on several occasions. In that way, we can say we're witnessing a change”, said Chetia.

The author is a member of The NewsCart, a Bengaluru based-media startup.

Updated Date: May 08, 2018 07:43:55 IST