With the help of an innovative mobile phone service, UN agencies are working with the government of Rajasthan, India to tackle child marriage.
The poster shows a little girl with braided hair, tied at the end with pink ribbons. Her face drops in despair as she walks past an older man. The garlands around their neck indicate that they have just been married.
She is holding a small blackboard in her hand, with the first letters of the Hindi alphabet on it, a sign that she would rather be in school.
The next image shows another life for the girl: she is smiling happily, dressed for school and sitting next to her smiling mother.
The message is simple, yet effective: educate your children, stop child marriage.
The story of SAPNA
The granddaughter of the Naubat Baja poster could well be Sapna*, a young girl from Jaipur in her early teens. Although she is still a minor, her family took her out of class and was about to marry her off, when Shreya*, a volunteer with Jeevan Ashram Sansthan (JAS), an NGO that works to empower women and girls, intervened.
Shreya knew about the Naubat Baja mission and had his phone number. In June 2021, she learned that a minor from Jaipur was to marry a 30-year-old man.
Sapna’s father had taken out a loan from the man’s family. When he couldn’t repay it, the lender – the bridegroom’s father – said he would cancel the loan if Sapna married his son.
Shreya called the helpline and the police swung into action. The marriage was stopped. Sapna was sent to a shelter for two months, but is now home and back in the classroom.
From music to mobiles
The poster is part of the campaign by Naubat Baja Missed Call Radio, a cloud-based radio station in the western Indian state of Rajasthan that tackles issues of well-being, empowerment and adolescent health.
The words Naubat Baja, represent a set of musical instruments that were played together in ancient times to attract people’s attention. This initiative is a new incarnation of the digital age, relaying messages against harmful practices such as child marriage and gender discrimination.
Launched on International Women’s Day in 2019, Naubat Baja relies heavily on the power of mobile phones, which have penetrated into the remotest corners of India. The initiative capitalizes on the fact that the cell phone is the preferred means of communication for young people, particularly in regions where people have little access to television, cable or the Internet.
Although child marriage is banned in many Indian states including Rajasthan. Shreya witnessed this first-hand in her own family: her two older sisters, she says, were married when they were minors.
“I saw the difficulties they are facing now due to lack of education. I don’t want other girls to fall into this trap,” says Shreya, who escaped her sisters’ fate and is studying for a postgraduate degree.
100 million girls at risk
In a March 2021 report, the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, pointed out that some 100 million girls are at risk of early marriage in the next decade.
The COVID-19 pandemic, according to the study, has resulted in “school closures, economic strains, service disruptions, pregnancies and parental deaths”, leaving an additional 10 million vulnerable girls facing the possibility of a child marriage.
In Rajasthan, civil society organizations such as JAS are fighting against this practice and successfully raising awareness of its dangers, through innovative programs such as Naubat Baja.
“Families who find it difficult to support themselves prefer to marry off their daughters even if they are not yet of age. That would mean fewer mouths to feed,” says JAS director Radhika Sharma.
Organizing a wedding during a pandemic also means less expense due to restrictions on gatherings and, with people leaving their homes and traveling to remote areas in search of work, marrying off their daughters early, assure parents of the safety of their offspring.
“Parents often feel their daughters would be safe if they were married off early,” Ms Sharma adds. “They would not be physically abused if it was known that they are married. Poverty, lack of education, patriarchy and gender inequality are also important factors behind this practice”.
Music, Entertainment, Empowerment
The goal of the Naubat Baja program is not only to counter the practice of child marriage, but also to empower girls in other ways.
The girls call the Naubat Baja number and receive a callback, which contains a 15-minute recording of free entertainment, interspersed with Hindi movie songs, news and social issue-themed audio dramas told through comedy or satire.
There are news about employment opportunities, general knowledge facts and information about government welfare programs for young people.
Messages on themes such as child marriage, domestic violence, adolescent health, menstrual hygiene, gender awareness, financial awareness, COVID-19 protocols and precautions are conveyed through the dramas.
The regularly updated program, supervised by UNFPA representatives, is produced in studios with the help of a team of researchers and presented by professional audio content creators.
The program is popularized through social media, graffiti and awareness campaigns in rural and urban areas by volunteers, community leaders, members of Panchayats (rural governing bodies), Anganwadi (rural child care centres) and community leaders. Asha workers (accredited social health activist).
Volunteers and teenage group leaders associated with Naubat Baja are called champions: Shreya is one of them.
In Rajasthan, efforts are underway to attract more partners in the fight against child marriage. Local frontline workers and members of the Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan (NYKS) – one of the largest youth networks in the world – are trained to organize meetings and discussions with adolescent girls and families in the community about messages broadcast by Naubat Baja.
“The initiative is one of the innovative strategies employed by UNFPA and its involved partners, to ensure that young people are aware of their rights and opportunities, have access to accurate information and services regarding their health and well-being, and are able to participate in and contribute to solving social problems that affect them,” said UNFPA India Representative Sriram Haridass.
Once the strategies start bearing fruit and many initiatives like Naubat Baja engage and empower young people like Shreya, thousands of Sapnas will dare to dream.
Naubat Baja’s poster against child marriage sums it up well. “I will let my children’s dreams fly away,” says the mother next to the happy little girl at school.
A version of this story was published by the United Nations agency for reproductive rights (UNFPA) earlier this month. You can find it here.
* name changed to protect identity