From Child Marriage to a Future of Equal Opportunity

Education was not a widespread institution in the Sikligar community during AIC community member Sikandar’s youth, but the institution of marriage was. After the 6th standard, Sikandar left school to be married to his childhood friend, Sunita.

He was 14, she was 13.

IMG_5741Among traditionally nomadic tribes like the Sikligars, when a suitable match is found, it is fixed immediately and the wedding happens as soon as possible so that the groom’s family can take the bride with them as they continue on their travels. Though Sikandar’s community was semi-permanently settled by the time his own marriage was arranged, the process followed this traditional timeline.

His mother, believing young Sunita to be a suitable prospect, went to her parents’ house several times, the match was agreed upon, and Sikandar and Sunita’s nuptials were set in stone. Neither child was formally told about the plans, though as they came to find out, neither had thoughts of resisting or rebelling, because all of their peers were having arranged marriages around the same time, and it did not strike them as being out of the ordinary.

Sikandar clearly remembers his wedding, a simple affair because both families were too poor to afford the traditional wedding festivities:

“I will never forget my wedding. There was no horse, nor doli (palanquin), and there wasn’t a mandap (traditional covered wedding tent) either. I walked to her house and walked her back to mine.”

Within a year, at age 14, Sunita gave birth to their first child. At the time, Sikandar did not feel like a father, because at 15, he was still a child himself. Within the next five years, Sikandar and Sunita became parents to four more children before AIC convinced them to adopt a permanent form of birth control and sponsored the procedure in 2008.

Looking back, both Sikandar and Sunita would have preferred to have gotten married later – at, say 20 or 22, and Sikandar regrets that he wasn’t able to stay in school longer (though he admits that he didn’t like it at the time, and preferred working to earn money instead). Sunita, unfortunately, never attended school at all. If they could go back and change the past, both wish that they had had knowledge of contraception options and could have resisted community pressure to have so many children so quickly, because they feel that they would have been able to take better care of their children during the early years if they had been able to start their family later and have fewer children.

In India, particularly in Denotified Tribe comunities like the Sikligars, many customs and traditions are clung to tightly and change is slow to occur. Sikandar, as a progressive community member, is breaking the mold, working to discontinue some of these steadfast traditions by granting his children a life unlike his – a life of education and opportunity.

“I can’t change anyone else’s way of thinking; I can change my own way of thinking. Through my thinking and AIC’s help, my life is changing. Upon seeing my example, others will change.” 

Having been exposed to many people from diverse backgrounds through his work as a caddy at the golf course across from the Sikligar slum, Sikandar has had a unique opportunity to broaden his horizons, and explains that he has spent a great deal of time observing how those who come to the golf course behave, communicate, and think, which has, in turn, shaped his own modes of interaction with others. Interestingly, his best friend is a non-Sikligar, which has opened his eyes to a perspective beyond the confines of his rigidly traditional community.

“I learn something from every place I go, and then I come home and tell her (Sunita) about it. Until people learn and see the world, nothing is going to change,”  he insists.

Unlike most Sikligar men, Sikandar believes that his sons and daughter are equal, deserve to be educated, and should have the opportunity to earn a living. He also vows that all of his children will marry when they are ready, not at a young age like him. He believes that his 10-year old daughter Payal will one day be a role model for others in the slum as an independent, educated, capable woman. When pushed about how he would react if his daughter eventually wish to marry outside of the community (a completely unheard of situation at present), he answers,

“I’d rather not look so far ahead. To say that I would let her do it or definitely wouldn’t let her – it’s not that simple. I believe the world will change, and I am waiting for it.”

IMG_4919aAIC’s support has helped make Sikander’s dreams for his children a reality. All five of his children attend the Education Outreach Program; the eldest two are enrolled in Marathi-medium schools and the youngest three (including Payal) attend English-medium public and private schools. The fact that AIC covers school fees, tutoring, transportation, stationery, medical care, and daily meals for his children allows Sikandar to save the money he earns working as a caddy at the nearby golf course. In fact, he was able to save enough to take advantage of a government-sponsored housing scheme and has now built a safe, secure 2-room house for his family.

Although Sikandar faced many struggles due to his own child marriage, he was able to create a union with his wife that is comprised of communication, mutual respect, understanding and support. About his relationship with his wife, Sikandar says,

“We were friends before marriage and today after so many years, we’re still friends. We talk about everything. We want to improve our lives going forward.”

At this, Sunita, who refers to her husband using the familiar term instead of the honorific “ji” as most Sikligar women do, interjects,

“We are united in our thinking. Often I could be having a certain thought and and he says it before I can. And when we look ahead at the future, we wish to go down the same path, hand in hand.”

It takes true courage to break from traditional norms within such a rigid cultural framework. Thanks to Sikander and Sunita’s open minds, their children will be able to have the strong educational foundation and diverse opportunities that they were not able to experience. Sikandar’s parting words sum up their hopes for the future:

“We’ve had our struggles, but that’s the past. Our children should step into a world free of biases, a world of equal opportunity.”