White Ribbon Alliance

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Today I Met a Legend

November 3, 2015
By Santana Murmu, White Ribbon Alliance Citizen Reporter, West Bengal, India

‘You are an inspiration; India needs more women like you!’ These are the words of Kailish Satyarthi, speaking to me several weeks ago in New York.

I left my home village, Kushmandi in South Dinajpur, for the first time to come to speak with global leaders in New York during the UN General Assembly. I am a volunteer with White Ribbon Alliance India and a citizen journalist in my home community in West Bengal, India.

I was married at 14, and I have two children. I’m now 18.

I believe that change comes from within. I say to young girls in my community, ‘don’t be like me, don’t get married, you may not get a good husband like mine. Stay in school – you can change the world’.

Since having my second child I joined White Ribbon Alliance, and discovered family planning. Now I tell others in my community about family planning, advising them to delay getting pregnant and to leave a gap of three years between pregnancies. I also say – don’t have children you cannot afford to care for.

When I hear about plans for an early marriage in my community, I visit the family and persuade them to change their minds. If I don’t succeed, I call on the auxiliary nurse midwives and the Panchayat leaders (elected councillors) to visit and convince the family. I have prevented many early marriages this way.

I can call a meeting of 50 or 60 women in my community, in the space of an hour, to discuss issues of health, rights, family planning, safe birth and early marriage. I also have five friends who back me up: we are called the ‘Six Musketeers’, and the government officials are paying attention to us!

The Citizen Hearings--which this year brought together men, women, health workers, politicians, government officials and the media--have been very important in my community for many reasons. Citizens did not know their entitlements to the free care provided by the government; now they do. In the past, women would be asked for bribes, but now there is a sign up at the health centre telling them not to pay bribes, as the care should be free, and there is a phone number of the government official to call if their rights are violated.

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Citizens also have many grievances that had not been heard before; now they know someone is listening, so they feel that change is possible. One mother was beaten by health staff when she complained that they had treated her roughly during the birth. Now her case is being heard. Citizens had so many questions, and now they have spoken out and they are getting answers.

Citizens are asking for more hearings in communities that have not yet been reached. Government officials are also asking for these, as a way to inform the community of their rights. In our region, some 60% of health posts are vacant; now that the community knows this, they can demand that government acts to fill the gaps. And a big change is that our state government now includes citizens in decision making.

Meanwhile, births at health centres (instead of at home without access to midwifery care) have gone up from 60% to 80% in recent years. This is reflected in the statistics for West Bengal, which show that deaths in childbirth have gone down by about a third in the last three years since the White Ribbon Alliance West Bengal began its campaign for safe motherhood and reproductive health and rights.

The Citizen Hearings have changed my life too. In New York, I have spoken to many powerful people during the UN General Assembly. Amongst others, Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organisation, thanked me for my contribution and said the fight to end child marriage must be won. At an ‘Up For School’ town hall meeting in New York, I have met a Nobel Peace Prize winning activist Kailish Satyarthi, who has encouraged me to keep going.

I am going back to school to continue my education, which stopped when I got married. My husband has agreed to let me do that. I always wanted to be a teacher – and now I feel my dream is within reach.