Roshini Bairwa from Rajasthan was only two when she lost her father. Her mother abandoned her soon after. She was raised by her grandparents and relatives who wanted to have a say in her upbringing. A few years later, her relatives got together to marry off the little girl. “But I wanted to study and play with other children in the evening. The idea of marriage was so scary,” Roshni said.
One day, when the pressure was too much to take, little Roshni ran to her children’s group (bal samooh) in the vicinity and begged for help. “My classmates, teachers and other elders all came forward to help me. They pressed upon my grandparents to stop my marriage. With great persuasion my grandparents agreed not to get me married off early,” Roshni remembers.
Life was stable for a few years after that but when Roshni turned 16, talks about her marriage resumed. “My relatives got a proposal for me and pressurized me to get married. I refused and my relatives assaulted me physically. Every time I said no to a proposal, I used to get a thrashing,” recalls Roshni, with pain in her eyes. She stood her ground but her neighbourhood did not appreciate her guts. People looked down on her with disdain. Families forbade their children from speaking with her and everywhere she went, she was treated like a ‘villain’ for bringing shame to her family.
Roshni was finally thrown out of her village. But she still stood firm and continued on her mission of getting herself educated. After a lot of financial and personal struggle, Roshni graduated in Arts.
Education gave Roshni the confidence to lead life on her terms. “I realized that like me, there may be many other girls who may be forced to get married against their wishes. There will also be some who may want to study more and cannot because of early marriage plans. I decided to do my bit for other girls.”
Roshni started taking an active role in homes where young girls were being forced into marriage. She went around counselling parents, grandparents and even neighbours and even discussing the ills of early marriage and motherhood.
Today, people identify her village as “Roshni’s village”, but for this crusader, completely eliminating child marriage is a Herculean task. “Being thrown out of the village did not stop me from staying in touch with the children of the village. I don’t have anything to lose now, since being ousted from my own village and all I care about is that no one should go through what I did as a little girl.”
Roshni adds, “To empower the voices that matter, I have now joined the #ZeroTeenMothers campaign started by the national NGO, Population Foundation of India, which aims to create greater awareness around teenage pregnancy in the state of Rajasthan. One-fifth of Rajasthan’s population are adolescents and we need to fight for their improved health for the country to have a better tomorrow,” she signs off.
ZeroTeenMothers campaign has gathered the uninhibited support of Rajasthan policymakers who believe in making a tangible change. The campaign was launched on the occasion of National Youth Day on 12 January 2020 and has received support across the state. The campaign hopes to set off a re-think on the issue of teenage pregnancy in Rajasthan.
Population Foundation of India is a national civil society organisation, which promotes and advocates effective formulation and implementation of gender-sensitive population, health and development strategies and policies. Bharat Ratna, JRD Tata, founded PFI in 1970. PFI addresses population issues within the larger discourse of empowering women and men so that they are able to make informed decisions related to fertility, health and well-being. PFI has already held eight youth-led consultations across the country to identify and put forward challenges and recommendations to improve adolescent health.