As of 2014, UNICEF reported India as having the second highest rate of child marriages and 47% of girls in India were married before they turned 18, the legal age of marriage in the country. Child marriage was outlawed in 1929 and has undergone several revisions since the time of independence. Despite its criminalisation, it remains a harsh reality for an approximated 23 million girls. According to the District Level Household and Facility Survey (DLHS-3) 2007-08, the state of West Bengal has been ranked with the fifth highest prevalence of child marriage in India with 54.7 percent married women (age 20-24) being married before they were 18. It’s even higher in rural areas--57.9 percent--and there was a time when every second girl in the high prevalence areas of Murshidabad (61.06 percent), Birbhum (58.3 percent), Malda (56.07 percent) and Purulia (54.03 percent) had been married off before they reached the legal age.
But this was before the state’s government announced the Kanyashree Prakalpa Scheme in 2014 when things started to change. The Scheme’s aim is simple, to keep girls in school and delay marriage as long as possible using ‘conditional cash transfers.’ Every girl is offered an annual sum of Rs.750 and subsequently another Rs.25,000 when they’ve successfully completed their higher secondary education, on the condition that they do not get married. “There used to be many child marriages before. But this has reduced by 90 percent. We barely hear of it anymore. Even if families admit their children for monetary gains, the fact is that the girl child is getting educated and stays in school at least till she turns 18,” says Sravanti Biswas, a teacher at Chatrabasha Junior High School in Herodih village, to The Indian Express.
As stated on the Kanyashree Prakalpa website, the first amount is paid as a scholarship to girls aged 13 to 18 years, for every year that they remain in school, and provided they are unmarried at the time. The second is a one-time grant given after the girl turns 18, provided that she’s engaged in some kind of academic or occupational endeavour and, again, is unmarried. Through this model they seek to improve the status of girls in the state, focusing on those who face a double disadvantage--first of being a girl, and second being from a social and economically disadvantaged background.
Previously where marriage had been incentivised with ‘getting rid of the girl-child burden’ which increased the risk of early pregnancies, maternal and child mortality and a number of associated health conditions, including domestic abuse, Kanyashree here has instead incentivised not getting married; it’s more than just about the money, though for some it remains as such, the scheme serves as a tool of empowerment for the girls providing them with the knowledge, education and life skills to be socially and economically independent in the future. The money given is paid directly into bank accounts that are set up in the girls’ names, giving only them access to it, and leaving the decision of how the money will be spent to them. “And over time, as entire generations of women enter marriages only after they have some degree of economic independence, it is expected that the practice of child marriage is completely eradication, and women will attain their right to health, education and socio-economic equality,” states the scheme’s objectives.
The Scheme has been recognised and admired on a national and international level in its list of accolades is the West Bengal Chief Minister’s Award for Empowerment of Girls 2014, and was among the “best practices” in “Girl Summit 2014” organised by the Department for International Development, UK and UNICEF in London, as stated on the website. Proving itself a successful endeavour, the Kanyashree Prakalpa Scheme is a model that will definitely do a lot of good if implemented nation wide.