HAS the Madhya Pradesh government put the onus of preventing child marriages on ill-paid and honorary employees? This is the question being asked after the attack on Shakuntala Verma, an anganwadi supervisor, in Dhar district on May 11. The attack brought to light the fact that the Women and Child Department had a month earlier sent out a letter to all anganwadi helpers and workers enlisting their help to curb child marriages in their areas. A copy of the letter is with Frontline.
The Sub Divisional Magistrate (SDM) is said to have tipped off Shakuntala Verma about the possibility of 15 child marriages taking place in Bhangarh village, and she had to act. But Shakuntala Verma's position did not make her any less vulnerable. The SDM's informer first threatened her as she had inadvertently exposed his role in the matter.
After she returned home on the evening of May 11, a person came knocking asking for directions. Even as she was scrutinising the note, the visitor attacked her with a sword. She raised her arms to protect herself, and in the process her hands nearly got severed. Hearing her shrieks for help, her landlord's family rushed to the place and got her admitted to the nearest hospital, after which she was moved to a hospital in Indore.
Condemning the attack and, more specifically, the role of the Women and Child Department, Hemalata, general secretary of the All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers, said: "This is ridiculous. Instead of taking responsibility themselves, they passed it down to the already burdened anganwadi worker. Their role is to motivate people; they cannot be made responsible for stopping child marriages."
She told Frontline that the Federation and also the State unit of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) had written to the State government to withdraw the order. "It is not clear whether the order is a temporary task or a permanent one. If it is a long term plan, then the government should initiate a campaign involving all sections of the community, and not only anganwadi workers and helpers who are most vulnerable given the close nature of their interaction with the village community," said Hemalata.
A two-member team led by Hemlata and Federation president Nilima Maitra met the injured Shakuntala Verma at Indore. Initially, they found that the District Collector denied that there was a link between the attack and child marriage. It was black magic, he averred initially, as she was attacked on her head, resulting in the removal of scalp hair. He later changed his statement.
The issue, say Hemalata and Maitra, is that under the guidelines of the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), it was not the job of the anganwadi worker to stop child marriages. "As it is, many sundry jobs unrelated to the ICDS are also given to them. They are roped in for surveys on tuberculosis, leprosy and AIDS awareness. The actual work under ICDS suffers as a result. They are also given targets for family planning instead of motivating women in group meetings," said Maitra. An anganwadi worker gets Rs.1,000 a month and a helper Rs.500.
The attack on Shakuntala Verma was not an isolated one. In Adarsh Indira Nagar, a colony near Indore city, another anganwadi worker, Anita Waghmare, was threatened after she had thwarted a child marriage. Interestingly, instead of condemning the heinous crime, Chief Minister Babu Lal Gaur created a stir by stating that the government or the law-enforcing machinery could not prevent child marriages from taking place. He said the practice was a scourge like liquor consumption and untouchability, which would only disappear after awareness increased among people.
The Supreme Court, however, took cognisance of the incident. On May 13, it directed the Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh governments to ask their State Human Rights Commissions to inquire into incidents of child marriage in their States.