It was an open-air discussion that I could not have imagined till I witnessed it.
“Do you know what this is?” Rama Biswas, the ANM (auxiliary nurse midwife) at the health sub-centre at Marwa Toli, Kishanganj, held up something wrapped in its plastic encasing.
“Yes, Ma’am,” a few adolescent girls answered. “This is a Copper T.”
Next she showed a packet of condoms.
“These are condoms,” a few voices answered. Kun-dum, they pronounced the word. “These are used by men.”
One of the girls elaborates on the use of condoms. Her voice is shy, yet sure. Another girl explains how Copper-T is used.
“Copper T helps us to create a gap between one child and another till the first child is a little grown-up and mature.” The nurse fills in the details to make sure everyone understands how contraception works and why it is necessary.
We are in north Bihar, in an area that is referred to as the “chicken neck”, a narrow strip of land on the map of India that has Nepal on one side and Bangladesh on the other. Most of the young women here are Shershahabadia Muslims, a community that had apparently been settled in parts of north Bihar and Bengal by the 16th century emperor, Sher Shah Suri.
Rama Biswas, the ANM nurse, is a woman with experience on her side. She brings up the topic of love and sex among the girls, and carries on confidently over the giggles and laughter of the group.
“It is not wrong to fall in love,” she says. “But be careful who you fall in love with. Not someone who only wants to use you and leave you.”
“The one who is not obsessed with touching me is the person to choose,” one of the girls says.
“How many of you have boyfriends?” the nurse asks.
“Not me, not me…”
“No one will say yes over here,” says Moena Khatoon, “but almost everyone has a boyfriend.”
There is laughter and protest at this statement. An invisible veil of formality is lifted. “I had a love marriage too,” says Biswas. “You all know my husband.”
Almost a year after I was part of this group, I am looking at the film we made with the adolescent women of this community. My film crew and I were documenting the impact of a campaign run by Oxfam India and BVHA (Bihar Voluntary Health Association) to educate and sensitize adolescent girls towards issues of reproductive and maternal health.
“Why should we die unnecessarily? We also want to live.”
It is a point-blank statement from the ANM nurse who has volunteered to conduct group meetings in which young girls share their experiences in safety and confidentiality.
“We want to bring up our children well and see them grow. We also want to become grandmothers. Why should we die early?”
“We deserve to live” sounds like a no-brainer of a message till we see it in the context provided by Sanjay Suman, programme coordinator—Bihar at Oxfam India. Kishanganj is among the districts with the highest maternal mortality ratio and lowest female literacy rate in the state of Bihar. The National Family Health Survey 3, 2005-06, shows that 69% women in Bihar are married before the age of 18. Twenty-five per cent of them deliver their first child before the age of 19.
Almost every woman in rural Kishanganj tells me two different numbers when I ask her how many children she has. The first number is how many babies she has given birth to. The second number is smaller. It is the number of children who are still living. Both numbers are precious for the mother.
A number of government and non-government interventions have collectively identified adolescent girls in rural communities as the group that has the greatest potential to be catalysts as well as beneficiaries of change.
In Kishanganj, Meraj Danish heads a team that helps to collectivize adolescent girls into VHSNCs (village health sanitation and nutrition committees), whose role is to take action at the community level to improve the quality of life in the village.
“These adolescent girls are at the centre of a circle of influence,” Danish explains. “They will be married in 20 other villages in the future. When one adolescent girl becomes aware, at least three-four generations benefit from it. Our first focus is to prevent early-age marriage among adolescent girls.
“The second focus is on health and hygiene.”
Moena Khatoon is the president of the VHSNC and takes her role seriously. She leads the discussion in meetings, recounting their successes as well as the challenges ahead. The girls openly share that people listen to them and give them time when they appear as a group. They intervened at the local PDS, or public distribution system, shop, and provide support at the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) centre. They ask obvious questions that had been considered taboo earlier. They are still reticent about speaking up in their families when their younger cousins get married or their own aunts are afraid to ask for contraceptives.
Moena’s poise and confidence is palpable as she stands on the verge of adulthood.
“My mother and my father both want their daughter to study. But other people judge us so much. Only I know and my God above knows what all people say. No one else knows.” Moena pauses to recover her voice. She looks upwards to stop the tears that are stinging her eyes.
“I have to listen to so many taunts. So much has happened to me. Still, I make a resolve and study. I want to become a teacher one day.”
“What will you teach?” I ask her.
“Urdu, Hindi, English, science, everything,” she says, laughing easily.
Change, when it comes, often tiptoes in quietly. As if unaware that we have waited centuries for it.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She tweets at @natashabadhwar and posts on Instagram as natashabadhwar.