Monika Barman is sixteen years old and lives in West Bengal, in India. She lives with her mother and father, who worry about the cost of finding a marriage for her and what the right time for her marriage is. Like many girls her age she is out of school. Monika’s older sister was married young, with a dowry, and dropped out of school. But now, the dowry costs are higher and Monika’s mother worries after her older daughter’s difficult pregnancy left her in fragile health. Monika’s father is searching for a husband for her. Her mother wants to wait.
But Monika is also one of more than 40,000 girls in more than 1,000 villages in the Cooch Behar district of West Bengal participating in the Security for Girls Through Land Project, or Girls Project. She is the subject of director Megan Mylan’s new short documentary After My Garden Grows. Monika’s story is both a simple one of rural family life and a powerful one of hope for opportunity. Mylan’s short documentary gives us a glimpse of Monika’s family, of the Girls Project, and of what Monika’s participation in the program can bring to her family.
The Girls Project is a micro-agriculture program run by Landesa, an Indian rural development organization. Launched in 2010, the Project aims to improve the social and economic status of young women in rural India. For Monika that means access to a Girls’ Group that discusses land rights and women’s rights and teaches members to cultivate small gardens at their homes. With knowledge and skills, girls can use land to bring something of value into the community by providing food and a source of market income.
Monika’s garden is on a rooftop. To reach it she climbs up a wooden ladder between two buildings at her family’s home. Among the dense greenery of West Bengal and of her plants, Monika’s red clothes stand out, her dark hair shadowed against the morning sun. After she checks her gourds and trims their vines, Monika climbs down the ladder with a large handful of leafy greens. The vegetables she grows provide food for her family, and these greens will be the mainstay of their afternoon meal.
For Monika, helping provide for her family does more than just put food on the table. It gives her a role to fill and makes her valuable. By growing food for her family, Monika lessens the burden of poverty on her parents – a imminent concern. After the meal, the women in Monika’s family gather – her mother, a younger sister and Monika’s older sister and her baby, visiting from their home. Monika’s older sister tells her mother that Monika should be in school, “She needs an education.” But the family doesn’t have the money to pay school fees. The conversation turns to a family acquaintance who, in order to pay the dowry for his daughter’s marriage, must sell his store and his land. Monika remembers the price of her sister’s dowry – 20,000 rupees (about $315 or £200) plus a bicycle and a ring. That was just a few years ago but their mother says, “Now 20,000 isn’t enough.”
Although Monika’s older sister jokes that the family should start a savings account now, she soon grows serious and encourages the family to wait to on a marriage for Monika. “Later is better,” she says, “Get married at the right age.”
In Monika’s world, child marriage and dowries are still widespread despite being outlawed since 1929 and 1961, respectively. The two are intricately linked with each other and with the social and economic standing of women in their communities. A dowry can be a way for parental property to be transferred to a daughter, but for poor families, the practice of a bride’s family gifting money to the groom’s is often out of reach. As a result, young women become a financial liability. One way of avoiding a high dowry expense is for a daughter to be married younger – traditionally, dowries are reduced or not required for very young brides.
This system of dowries and child marriages has lasting consequences for the young women trapped in it. Once married, most will drop out of school. Early pregnancy carries serious health risks, and their children are often born underweight. Lacking education themselves, they are less likely to immunize their children or to educate them. According to UNICEF, one in every five girls in West Bengal is married by age fifteen and nearly half by age eighteen. By comparison, only one boy out of a hundred in the state is married by age fifteen. Nearly half the girls in West Bengal are pregnant before age nineteen.
Monika’s parents are thinking about her marriage prospects. Her father says that he has talked to a man. Her mother counters with a different man – one with land, who eats well. But then she says, “What’s to be gained from getting them married early?” She leans against the pole holding up their walls, chewing on her thumb with an expression of worry and thought. Monika’s father is the quieter one, sitting cross-legged and looking down. “Poor people can’t wait until eighteen.” He begins to list the things they would need for her marriage, and his wife interjects – she wants to wait until Monika is eighteen. The discussion doesn’t end conclusively, but Monika’s father sums up the prevailing view of their community, “When the time comes we’ll get her married. A girl isn’t something you keep at home, after all.”
Child marriage in West Bengal brings to light community perception of a girl’s value and the harsh economic realities of life in rural India. Financial independence is key to bringing women out of poverty and to ending the practice of child marriage. And interventions to delay marriage have often focused on this money aspect. For example, in 1994 the state of Haryana introduced a conditional cash transfer program under the name Apni Beti, Apna Dhan – My Daughter, My Wealth. The program provides bonds to newborn girls payable to their parents if the girl is unmarried at her eighteenth birthday. It is a model that has been used around the global to incentivize social behaviors like sending children to school or getting them immunized. The first girls born under the system turned eighteen in 2012. The International Center for Research on Women in partnership with the Population Foundation of India is wrapping up a five-year study of the program in 2015, examining the program’s effectiveness at delaying marriage.
But financial independence or economic stability alone are likely not enough to stop child marriage. As long as the value of a girl is bound up in her youth as a bride, the practice will continue. Monika is part of a program that seeks to transform the social value of girls and give their families a financial chance.
A number of girls from Monika’s village are in the program. Monika and the others share what they’ve learned through the Girls’ Group with their friends. Monika has a bag of mushrooms that the girls see as a good source of nutrition. “If we eat them, we get vitamins. Vitamins that make me nice and fat,” she jokes to them. At the Girls’ Group, the young women of this village are learning about nutrition and agriculture from peer leaders and community health advocates. Group leaders also encourage the girls to reap the financial benefits of the extra food their gardens provide. Around the circle, several girls say they are selling their vegetables at market. With that money, Monika says, she is saving up to pay the fees to return to school.
The group is more than just a lecture circuit where information is distributed to help these girls grow their gardens. It is also a forum for discussion, a safe space for them to voice their opinions and develop their ideas about how to be in the world. Although Landesa has a focus on land rights, what the girls learn about land and what they learn to do with it transforms their ideas of what they deserve. “In our society, land makes you more stable and safe,” one declares confidently, “Sons and daughters should get the same share.”
Some of what these young women say seems universal. One says, “If you are born a boy, life is easy.” Another tells the group about her sister who finished school and isn’t yet married, but doesn’t have a job to support herself or contribute to the family. Some, however, is not. Monika shares that her parents are trying to get her married. “They think later they won’t find me a good home,” she says. The topic of marriage brings out emotion for a number of the girls in the group. One girl angrily states, “It isn’t fair.”
“People never think they should raise their daughter to help her stand on her own two feet.” Her eyes are watering as her voices her frustration “They say, ‘Get her married, then the problem will end.’” Several other girls nod their heads and the group leader acknowledges the difficult position that many poor young women in this region are in. She says, “Yes, you have to be brave. Tell them directly, tell your father what you want and what’s right.” Monika nods her head emphatically.
In the morning, bikes run down the village’s dirt road. And Monika watches as three girls matching white outfits with large Western-style backpacks walk down the path to school. There is no school for Monika though. She climbs back up to her rooftop garden, as her sister calls to her from below, “How much do you think you’ll get for the gourd?” Monika rides on the back of her father’s bicycle, with her harvested gourds tucked into a red and white striped bag hooked on the handlebars. He is bringing her to the market to sell the fruit of her hard work. The market is packed with vendors and produce; Monika is the only woman there. Her bright red clothes and long hair stand out among the blue and white dress shirts of the men buying and selling in a frenzy.
Monika’s father does most of the negotiating. Passing on several offers lower than what Monika thinks the gourds can fetch. Her smile is wide and bright though, as she calls out to passing shoppers, encouraging them to buy. When the gourds do sell, it is Monika’s father who exchanges them for rupee notes, and it is Monika to whom he gives the money. She handles it carefully, tucking the precious notes together into the red and white striped bag.
Women are an often under-utilized resource for economic growth and financial stability. This potential goes unrecognized in many places around the world where the work of women and the capability of women to work is not valued. Inequality of opportunity pushes back on attempts by women to lift themselves from poverty. Economic empowerment for women is one of the most important factors to in achieving equality.
Megan Mylan’s short but powerful documentary brings this lesson to life. Girls in the West Bengal program are eating better, staying in school longer, and marrying later. Through their gardens, they have become advocates for themselves and their sisters, as well as providers for their families. When Monika’s father hands her the proceeds from her gourds at the market, he acknowledges her worth within the community. Through her garden, Monika has become valuable. Keeping her home, maybe, is something that can be done.
After My Garden Grows premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and is available to watch for free at http://vimeo.com/109191402 . It was supported by the Sundance Institute in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and with support from the Kendeda Fund. It runs approximately 10 minutes, in Bengali with English subtitles. More information on the film is available at www.growagirl.in/themovie/. More information on the Girls Project can be found at http://www.landesa.org/women-and-land/programs-and-projects/security-for-girls-through-land-project-girls-project/.