Grassroots Girls Initiative: Empowering girls in West Bengal

This guest post from the Grassroots Girls Initiative tells the story of Mohammad Bazar Backward Class Development Society (MBBCDS) and their efforts to end child marriage and empower marginalized women and girls.  MBBCDS is an nonprofit organization that AJWS supports in West Bengal, India.  

The Situation for Girls

West Bengal is one of the poorest states in India and its tribal villages are labeled “economically backward.” Female literacy is extremely low; more than half of adolescent girls are either pulled out or drop out of the education system by high school. Girls in tribal villages are extremely vulnerable to early marriage, early pregnancy and domestic violence.

The Organic Solution

The Mohammad Bazar Backward Class Development Society (MBBCDS) works with marginalized Muslim and tribal women and girls in rural West Bengal. Through education and counseling, the organization empowers girls to stay in school, and combat violence, sexual assault, discrimination and high dowry demands. MBBCDS also runs a weekend tutoring programs for girls to bolster their education, provide empowerment training and support.

Securing Our Rights

Among the chaotic cacophony of Kolkata’s train station, I’m waiting for the boarding call with Ayesha Khatun, founder of the grassroots organization Mohammad Bazar Backward Class Development Society (MBBCDS).

“The biggest problem for girls is child marriage,” Ayesha tells me as we gather our bags and start walking to the platform. “When the girl is 10 or 11, the family will consider marriage. Since the daughter won’t come back, the parents are giving away their responsibility for her. After marriage, girls face problems like doing all the housework, sexual violence, and the in-laws not accepting that she is a family member—they see her as a maidservant. She has no opportunity or rights. Girls will say, ‘I can’t do all this work, I am a small child,’ so there is often fighting with in-laws.”

As people pour onto the platform, Ayesha holds onto my arm so I won’t get swept away and explains how dowry has created a huge debt system that makes families view their daughters as burdens. To marry off a daughter, parents must pay about 50,000 rupees (US $805) and two or three gold ornaments, plus the cost of inviting about 100 people to the ceremony. Families will sell assets, borrow or the mothers will beg from the others in the community. In-laws often demand more dowry after the marriage takes place and threaten the safety of the girl if the parents don’t pay.

In the midst of all this, we’re wrangling our way onto the train. The train rumbles then rattles for five hours into rural West Bengal. Arriving at Heruka, we drive through lush, green fields into the village to interview some girls and visit the MBBCDS center.

MBBCDS girl w bike
A girl from the MBBCDS community. Photo credit: Lydia Holden.

MBBCDS offers free weekend tutoring at the center just for girls, while also teaching girls about their legal rights, how to make low-cost sanitary napkins (an alternative to the old, dirty clothes most girls in West Bengal are forced to use). When necessary, MBBCDS provides books, pens and fees to keep girls in school. Key to MBBCDS’ work is empowerment training. Through tutoring, counseling, song, dance, sports and conversation, MBBCDS is instilling self-worth and confidence in girls so they can stand up for their education and against child marriage.

“We are learning what our rights are so we can protest against the problem,” explains Nafisa Khatun, 13. Sitting on mats outside her home, Nafisa’s entire family is present, listening curiously as we chat. “We have education rights, we don’t always need to stay in the house, we can go outside to see everything. If girls under age 19 in the village are being married we go to the mother to protest and ask why they are doing this. We have a strong power—together we can protest against early marriage and violence.”

Walking down the dirt road together to the MBBCDS center, we pass a dilapidated building that I assume is abandoned. “No,” says Nafisa, “that is our school. The building is bad, but the main problem for girls is the toilet—there is no water at the school and it is very dirty.  We must go to the pond outside the school in the open, so there is no privacy for us girls.”

Arriving at the MBBCDS center, I’m greeted by girls singing, dancing and reciting poetry. I’m then taken to the vocational training room to meet Rahima Khuna, 14, who is involved in a program that trains girls to make sanitary napkins. “Before I used old, dirty clothes which was dangerous,” says Rahima. “So I started the hygiene training and we make sanitary napkins to use and sell.” As Rahima shows me how the sanitary napkins are made, she tells me that her father was against her education, instead wanting her to marry; it’s only through the support of MBBCDS that she remains in school. Girls including Rahima are also trained in embroidery and sewing to help them cover school fees. “Here we are taught how to overcome problems and achieve our dreams. If MBBCDS was not here all these things we’ve achieved like staying in school and not being married would be damaged. We would try, but our progress would stop.”

As the sun sets behind the banyan trees, the girls jump on their bikes or head out on foot to return home for dinner. They wave and smile as I snap a few pictures and tell me to return soon so they can show me how much more they’ve accomplished to secure their rights.

Help Seed the Change

Organic solutions are growing at MBBCDS, but more resources are needed. The girls of MBBCDS want to know:

What are some other vocations with low start-up costs the girls can learn to help them earn school fees? What are the steps to set up the training?

Help seed the change by posting your answer at Growing Organic Solutions for Girls! Your answer will not only help MBBCDS, but it could be worth US$2,000 for this group.

Lydia Holden is communications lead for the Grassroots Girls Initiative.