How girls in Bihar are coming forward to deal with sexual issues

For 18-year-old Mausam Kumari, campaigning against child marriages became a mission after she visited a family that lost its 16-year-old daughter-in-law during childbirth, along with the twins she gave birth to. “The girl did not have the strength to bear the children. Had she known about family planning, the pregnancy could have been avoided and she would not have died at such a young age.” Since then, Mausam, from Hardiya village in Nawada district of Bihar, is one of the most articulate and vocal of 103 members of the Kishori Clubs.

Here, girls come together to discuss crucial issues impacting women. At the Clubs, set up in two blocks of Nawada district, the members use the platform to focus on menstrual hygiene, sexual health, gender inequality and nutrition.

Though young Mausam has the knack to persuade women to go in for family planning methods, including contraception, for spacing of children, and has been campaigning vigorously for menstrual hygiene over the past three years, it has not been easy for her.

The villagers don’t look at such activity kindly.

“At your age you should be studying and not shamelessly talking about such matters” is the reaction of many villagers. “They say we have no business to talk about issues like the need to delay marriages for girls or the importance of contraception and family planning,” says Mausam, who just completed her matriculation.

Most recently, Mausam was also able to convince a woman in her village visiting her parents after the birth of her second child to go in for tubectomy, for birth control. “People in the villages are becoming aware of the benefits of small families but they are either not aware of family planning methods or not willing to go in for them,” she explains.

For Anu Kumari from Amava village, it has been a bit different. Though she faced no resistance from her parents when she joined the Kishori Clubs three years ago, others in the village felt that the girls were out to have a good time. “But now we are taken seriously and people listen to us instead of shutting their doors on us,” says Anu, who is a member of the Laxmibai group and drives a motorbike that her father bought her when she topped the inter exams.

A few months back, Anu discreetly informed the police about the marriage of a minor girl that was about to take place in her village. The boy, along with the marriage party, got wind of it and returned back. “A couple in our village already had five children but were refusing to use contraceptives. We were somehow able to convince the wife to go in for tubectomy just a few days back,” she recalls.

Pummy, another member of the group, also managed to make an effective intervention recently. Her father was a priest and she managed to dissuade him from performing the marriage ceremony of a minor girl.

Counselling facility

Child marriage and contraception have recently become issues to be tackled, but when the girls initially joined the group, the focus was on menstrual hygiene and matters confronting adolescents. In response, some of them started sanitary napkin banks through contribution from their pocket money for girls whose parents could not afford the napkins.

Games are used to spread the message

The groups have also been able to convince the Upmandal Hospital at Rajouli to start a counselling facility for adolescent girls once a week.

It was not easy for the cluster coordinators Nirmala Kumari and Sheela Kumari working under the Population Foundation of India (PFI) project on Social Behaviour Change Communication (SBCC) in the two Bihar blocks to persuade parents to allow their teenage daughters to join the Kishori Clubs, especially when they come to know what issues that would be discussed. “The training provided to us as well as the support of the functionaries at every level helped us convince the villagers,” recall the coordinators. They have also used films, games, comics and networking on app groups to spread the message.

Sheela Kumari says it is even more challenging to work in villages like Dilwa where Naxals wield power, but carries on her mission despite the fear. Sheela is proud that she has been able to start two girls’ groups in this remote village.

The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi