Sushmita’s parents knew. They had hastily planned the wedding in secret, knowing that many people in the community would not approve and would fight to prevent it. They also knew that their daughter, the bride, would not approve. It didn’t matter that Sushmita was only 13 years old or that she wanted to keep studying. It didn’t matter that the groom was a stranger twice her age and would expect her to drop out of school to become a housewife; Sushmita’s parents had already accepted money from the groom’s family. Her parents needed the money and believed this was Sushmita’s best and only option.
However, as the guests and groom’s family started arriving, the 13-year-old would-be bride was nowhere to be found. Friends had alerted Sushmita to her wedding earlier that morning. Fearing that her life was over, Sushmita had fled to her uncle’s house in tears. Determined for the wedding to proceed, her parents took the wedding party to her uncle’s house to find her. There appeared to be no escape for Sushmita. She would have to marry this stranger, this older man, and give up her dreams of becoming a doctor. She was dressed and marked with the ceremonial tikka (forehead marking of red vermillion powder) along with all the guests, surrounded by the trappings of a joyous ceremony, but for Sushmita, this was no celebration. This was a catastrophe.
Fortunately, Sushmita’s parents were not the only ones who knew about the clandestine wedding. Word had also reached Sushmita’s social mobilizer (her Room to Read Girls’ Education Program mentor) and the program’s Mothers’ Committee.
Mothers’ Committees emerged from Room to Read’s initiative to engage families and communities in their girls’ educations. Tackling gender inequality in education requires more than a change in the girls’ attitudes alone; it also requires community-wide transformation of the value given to girls’ education. Since Room to Read established the Girls’ Education Program in Sushmita’s village there has been a shift in the way the community thinks about education and early marriage for their girls.
One mother, Ram Kumari Tharu explains how it was in her generation: “I got married when I was a child,” she says, “I took over a lot of responsibilities at a very young age.” She continues to explain that she had known nothing else, and had assumed it was this way everywhere until her daughter, who was participating in Room to Read’s program, told her otherwise.
Interrupting long-standing practices like child-marriage can often be met with fierce resistance from those who consider it a part of their tradition. In Sushmita’s village, however, a Mothers’ Committee predominantly comprised of women who themselves did not have the chance to get an education became fierce advocates for educating girls.These mothers were determined to be the last generation of child brides.
This is the army of women who came to Sushmita’s aid on her wedding day. Although Sushmita was not their daughter, they were not going to let her future be taken away.
In their small, tightly-networked village, it’s hard to keep secrets. When word of a potential marriage reached the committee, they went directly to Sushmita’s parents to try to talk them out of it. Seeing that they were not easily dissuaded, the mothers threatened police intervention. Sensing the mounting opposition, Sushmita’s parents attempted to secretly expedite the ceremony to seal the arrangement before her social mobilizer and Mothers’ Committee could present more obstacles. However, they may have underestimated these women.
As soon as the mothers learned about the ceremony, they wasted no time in notifying the village leaders and police.
“We stormed the marriage procession,” says Asha Tharu, who was one of the mothers from the group. “We had warned them. The girl was only 13 years old and a seventh grader! She was being forced to marry a man double her age,” she adds.
The 50 or so wedding guests fled the scene, hurriedly wiping the tikka off of their foreheads to hide the fact they had been present at the wedding as the committee and Sushmita’s social mobilizer charged into the wedding ceremony with police and community leaders. The police took the bride and groom and both families to the police station for questioning. Most brides would probably be horrified to have their wedding day end in a police station, but Sushmita couldn’t have been more relieved.
Sushmita now lives with her uncle and is continuing her studies in 7th grade.
The Mothers’ Committee says that the Girls’ Education Program has not only taught their daughters to be more confident, the mothers themselves say they feel more empowered as well. “We feel so proud to be activists for positive change.”
It’s incredible to realize that just a generation earlier, it would have been unlikely for the community to mobilize around Sushmita, defending her right to marry when she chooses and make education her priority. But now, she and her classmates are on their way to becoming the kind of educated, powerful women who will not only fight for their own right to an education, but like many of these mothers, will fight for the next generations as well.