The sheer despair and agony of parents, forced to consider dowry demands from prospective grooms for their daughter, made Arjuma, 19, take a bold decision. It was better to remain unmarried than make her parents sweat blood to find her a husband. So, when Shahidul Islam’s parents made demands of cash, furniture and jewellery, Arjuma convinced her parents to say no. But unlike other grooms in village Chakborbaria in North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, Shahidul, 25, went ahead and married Arjuma without dowry, defying his parents and relatives.
This move by Arjuma and Shahidul, three years ago, set the wheels of a youth movement, in this predominantly Muslim village, in motion. Other youths started coming forward to defy the dowry system. “After four-five such weddings, we had a rallying point among the youth where we could intervene for their larger participation in socio-political issues. Today, this group is a leading participant in the Un-manifesto programme launched in partnership with 42 organizations across the country to bring forth the demands of the youth for Election, 2014”, says Bappaditya Mukherjee, Director, Prantakatha, the West Bengal partner in the Un-manifesto campaign.
Obviously, end to dowry is one major demand from these youth. “There are stringent anti-dowry laws in our country, but sadly the enforcement is weak. While the poor are pressurized to pay up, the rich willingly pay huge dowries to their daughters, setting a precedent in society. This has to stop totally, only then will girls be equal to boys in our society both in their parental and husband’s homes”, says Arjuma, adding, “On a one to one basis, I have acted and I will ensure that my sister too is wed without dowry.
During the group interface to set the Un-manifesto agenda, Rahul Ameen, 25, came up with the point that if parents wanted to give something to their daughters happily, it should be okay. However, he was vehemently shot down. ” The implementation of anti-dowry laws should not differentiate between ‘willing’ or ‘unwilling’ dowry. There should also be serious anti-dowry campaigns targeting the youth, so that they become empowered enough not to cave in to parental pressure”, says Shahidul, asking, “how come we never hear of the boy’s parents giving ‘happily’ ? Our political leaders have to clearly state their stand on dowry and implement the existing laws properly . They have to stop hiding behind words like ‘tradition’ and talk about progress which puts women and men at an equal level. Our group is working with the local panchayat members to this end and it has been a very productive relationship”.
Interestingly, the dialogue with local panchayat members, initiated on dowry, has now taken on much wider dimensions. “We are now talking to this group of young people on a regular basis in relation to implementation of various government schemes like MGNREGA, mid-day meal, school-building repair, road repair etc. There is also lot of discussion happening in relation to education and employment for local youth” , says MdSattar Ali, PaschimKhikapur gram panchayat, under which this village falls.
Education and employment , of course, comes next on the list of demands. “Many children don’t go to school here, especially the girls. Of those who do finish primary school, the majority don’t go for higher studies as the parents don’t have the wherewithal to pay for it. The girls are married off early, by fourteen-fifteen and the boys largely end up as labourers in small scale industries or as drivers or rickshaw-pullers”, says Alisa Bibi, 21. The need of the hour is for a sustained campaign on education where parents are made aware of the need to send and retain children in school and for employment after completion of studies.
“The parents remain poverty stricken as the largely agricultural area got converted into a semi-urban small scale industrial area. Most lost their agricultural land and had no skills to work in the industries. For the children, after studies, chances of employment is negligible. What we demand is employable skill-enhancing education. Access to good coaching and training centres will enable us to compete successfully in the mainstream .Its also essential that the girls get equal educational and employment opportunities. Only then can the community progress as a whole”, adds Shahidul.
“Across youth communities, be they Muslims, LGBT, disabled, from red light, rural or urban areas, the common demand is for employment and for an education which will help them to get that employment. Most feel that just going through our regular educational system of B.A. M.Sc. etc. is of no use unless one gets a job. For that, almost to one, boy or girl, they feel that vocational training is a must and that the entire education process should be geared towards producing a skilled, employable workforce”, points out Anshuman Chatterjee, Un-manifesto coordinator, Prantakatha.
Infrastructure development figures next on the list. “Good roads, schools, colleges, hospitals, transportation, communication connectivity are some of the things we feel deeply about. We always feel that rural areas or semi-urban places like ours get neglected in these matters whereas those in urban areas automatically get the best facilities. We want equal infrastructure for ourselves too”, says MeherunnisssaBiwi, 22.
The political cause and action is higher in urban areas and therefore basic needs like primary or higher education, healthcare, infrastructure are taken care of. General awareness about rights, self-awareness and women empowerment are also significantly better due to focused mass-media presence, says Indore-based Aniket Mishra, 23, currently working out an internship with Prantakatha. “For the youth today, a livelihood is the biggest issue, cutting across all divide. We need to go beyond a system which thinks of jobs as ends, to a system where generating jobs for others can also become equally significant. Entrepreneurial skills need to be developed so that both employment generation and employment happens side by side”, he says adding, “the opportunities should be equal irrespective of caste, creed, gender, religion or class, financial support should go to the meritorious who lack the means, admissions and employment should be merit based for real progress”.
Prantakatha has so far brought 2700 youth from different sections in 19 districts of West Bengal under the Un-manifesto project and hopes to reach 5000 by April, 2014, bringing along a comprehensive set of demands for Elections, 2014.
(Initially Filed for WFS)