Until now, the problem with this tactic has been the police themselves: The Bihar force, overworked, under-resourced and as embedded in caste prejudice as the society it nominally serves, has not traditionally concerned itself overmuch with the human rights of Dalits, certainly not Dalit schoolgirls. Sister Sudha said she has fought for years to have police take complaints of rape and abuse seriously – if she reported a marriage done with the parents’ consent, she would be laughed out of the station.
But the soft-spoken and thoughtful police chief now in charge of Gaya is cut from different cloth. “Unless and until parents take cognizance of the fact that getting children married at such a young age has such adverse implications on their health and their education, things will not change,” he said a few days after Sister Sudha sought out Guriya. “If we are educating the girl, we are educating the whole family, and she is able to take care of the children she will give birth to.”
These are startling observations from a Bihari police officer, but Supt. Kumar understands Sister Sudha’s desire to use the law. And if it comes to it, if parents push ahead with the marriages, he is ready to charge them.
But he hopes it won’t be necessary. “I don’t think it’s going to give a long-term solution. … When you are sending parents to jail, who will take care of the children, who are already very vulnerable? In most cases, the parents are [marrying them off] under certain circumstances – because they are not financially able to support the girl, or under community pressure. First, we have to create awareness, so they don’t see their children as a liability.”
Over the next few days, Sister Sudha and her staff tried to track down the other girls who did not come back, but these visits did not go as well.
Four hours’ drive west of Gaya in the tiny village of Dharmpur, they went looking for four girls. One had been taken from Bihar to the big city, Kolkata, by her migrant-worker father, and no one had news of them. But at the Kumar home, they found Chandni, 14, sitting morose and listless in the courtyard of the house her family shares with three sets of uncles, aunts and their children.
Asked why she was not back at Prerna, the family blustered – “She was sick! She’s going to a local school instead! Her mother has a new baby, and Chandni has to help!” But it took about three minutes for the truth to come out – they were hunting for a husband. Chandni has two cousins who also left Prerna, a 13-year-old for whom the family is also seeking a groom, and a nine-year-old whose mother decided not to send her because the older girls were not going.
Sister Sudha’s network of Dalit organizers has only recently started to work in this area. None of the adults in this family – or the village, for that matter – had ever been to school, and as they talked, it was clear they saw little point in it. “We’re working people,” one aunt said with a shrug. “We have to work all day to feed ourselves.” All the adults, and some children, do agricultural day labour for about $2 a day.
And what about the age-of-marriage law? Here, hours from a town, the idea that the police might concern themselves with a girl’s wedding is so alien as to be baffling. Chandni, when asked, said with a sigh that she misses playing, and studying at Prerna. She liked computer class, and karate. But she has three close friends in the village, and all now have husbands, so she knows what’s waiting for her.
“I don’t want to be married yet,” she said with a burst of courage. “I want to study.”
Her mother and aunts continued their conversation as if she had not spoken.
The Prerna team left frustrated, with a sense there was little progress to be made in the short term. “We will have to do more to show them the possibilities that come with education,” Sister Sudha said after her staff reported back about Dharmpur.
But for one of the lost girls, at least, there is a second chance.
Sister Sudha squeezed an extra bed into the dorm, and a few weeks ago, Guriya put on her red and white uniform and went back to school.