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India’s marginalised girls fighting child marriage | Child Rights News



Rajasthan, India – “I want to study at least up to 12th standard (grade)” was Saira Bano’s heartfelt cry when her parents started looking for a groom for her in October 2020.

It had been a tough year for her parents in their remote northwestern Indian village. Since a nationwide lockdown to check coronavirus was imposed in March 2020, Saira’s father has not been able to find much work.

He earned about 1,200 rupees ($17) a week as a labourer in pre-COVID times, which barely kept the family afloat. And when that stopped too, he thought it was better to marry Saira off instead of spending the family’s limited resources on her education.

Saira is 17.

“We are six brothers and sisters,” she said over the phone from her village of Kudgaon in Rajasthan state’s Karauli district.

“We have always lived in poverty. After COVID, it has become even more difficult to sustain the household.”

Around the world, about 12 million girls a year are married off before they turn 18, according to the United Nations. Nearly 30 percent of South Asian women aged 20 to 24 were married before 18.

The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the crisis.

While the Indian government has not maintained comprehensive data, international organisations say child marriages could be a major fallout of the pandemic.

By June last year, merely three months into lockdown, about 92,203 interventions had been made by ChildLine, an agency that protects children in distress and is part of the Ministry of Women and Child Development. Thirty-five percent of those interventions were about child marriages.

While Saira understood her father’s helplessness, she did not give in.

“I was really upset,” she said. “I want to be a teacher when I grow up. I want to help young girls become independent women. But I did not know how to convince my father.”

Saira Bano, 17, says she wants to be a teacher and help other girls become independent [Devendra Kumar Sharma/Al Jazeera]

She soon became aware of a group of girls from marginalised communities who were starting a campaign to create awareness around child marriage in Karauli.

“That got my hopes up,” said Saira. “I attended their meeting, and learned that the state government has a scholarship scheme in place to ensure girls like me don’t drop out of school.”

She got the group and the activists supporting them to talk to her father.

“They explained the drawbacks of child marriages,” said Saira. “It took me two months to convince him. But he finally agreed. It has been six months now, and he has not talked about marriage to me.”

Were it not for that intervention, Saira’s father would not have come around. That group has saved more than one girl from child marriage in Karauli.

A brave step in a notorious state

In October 2020, after convincing her parents to put off her marriage, Priyanka Berwa, 18, a Scheduled Caste girl from Ramthara village in Karauli, decided to keep going. Nine girls joined her and they started a campaign against child marriage called the Dalit Adivasi Pichhada Varg Kishori Shiksha Abhiyan (Movement for Education of Dalit Tribal Backward Groups’ Girls).

Dalits, formerly referred to as “the untouchables”, fall at the bottom of India’s complex caste hierarchy, while tribes and other so-called “backward groups” have been provided special protection by India’s constitution.

“We realised that almost every girl our age was facing the same challenge that we did,” said Priyanka.

“Nobody wants to educate girls after 10th grade (high school) here in any case. The pandemic made it worse. The schools are shut, not many here have smartphones for online education, and people are out of work. I was lucky to have convinced my parents.”

It was a brave step, for the state of Rajasthan is particularly notorious when it comes to the outlawed practice of child marriages.

According to the 2015-2016 National Family Health Survey, 35.4 percent of women between 20 and 24 in the state were married before they turned 18. The national average stood at 27 percent at that time.

Rajasthan’s initiative to provide free college education to girls aims to curb the practice.

Priyanka used to visit her mother, Urmila, 34, where she worked, cleaning the premises of a local NGO called Alwar Mewat Institute of Education and Development (AMIED).

“They always treated me with love and care,” said Priyanka. “They didn’t discriminate between boys and girls. I thought I could ask for their help.”

AMIED activists stepped in and explained to Urmila how early marriage and early pregnancy are related to malnutrition among young mothers, and contribute to premature deliveries and maternal death.

Urmila then convinced her husband, who is often ill, meaning Urmila supports the household.

“That probably made it easier to convince him,” she said. “My parents married me off at 14. I remember how scared and clueless I felt. I have spent more than half my life looking after my daughter. I don’t want her to live the kind of life that I have led. I want her to live for herself. I want her to follow her dreams.”

Priyanka also wants to be a teacher and ensure that girls in her area are able to study.

“I was fortunate to have had access to the activists at AMIED. What about those that didn’t?” she said.

“Therefore, slowly the 10 of us brought in two to three girls from each village, and they, in turn, convinced more girls from their villages to join us. When we had enough people, we started going from village to village, plastering slogans against child marriage and creating awareness through street plays.”

Priyanka is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in arts. Like her mother, she cleans homes to earn extra money. “I have managed my education while working,” she said. “But I want every girl in the state to study at least up to 12th standard.”

The movement that started with 10 girls has now become a force of 1,250 in Karauli – all aged between 13 and 18 and belonging to Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Class communities, which are among the most disadvantaged in India.

When Neelam’s potential groom’s family visited, she told them she was not interested in getting married [KK Mahawar/Al Jazeera]

They managed to convince their parents and are now going door-to-door to convince more elders and community leaders in the villages.

“There are challenges,” said Noor Mohammad, founder of AMIED. “But the girls have started a conversation around child marriage, and we are seeing a serious pushback.”

Mohammad said the girls even set up email accounts and wrote personal stories to the state’s chief minister.

“So they are also creating pressure politically. They have reached out to people outside their district and are determined to make it a pan-Rajasthan movement. They are the leaders, we are just helping them out,” he said.

The growth of the movement has made the girls more confident, said Neelam Mahavar, 17, a Scheduled Caste girl who lives in Naroldam village in Karauli.

When the parents of her potential groom had come to see her, she told them she was not interested in getting married.

“I told them I want to study. The boy’s parents said: ‘She’s an arrogant girl,’ and walked off,” Neelam giggles.

“My parents thought if something happened to them, who would look after me and my sister. My father lost work as a tailor after the lockdown.”

However, Neelam and her 13-year-old sister Khushi have told their parents that marriage is the last thing on their mind and that they are more than capable of looking after themselves.

“My sister wants to become a collector (top bureaucrat in a district). She is hardworking and has faith in herself,” she says.

“And I want to be a teacher. Nobody thinks of boys as a burden. Even today, elders in the community believe that girls become wayward if they study more. I want to change that mindset. I want to tell the girls in Rajasthan that they are in no way inferior to boys.”

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Nic Dlamini is set to be first black South African at Tour de France




South African cyclist Nic Dlamini
Nic Dlamini is set to become the first black South African to ride the Tour de France

Nic Dlamini will make history at this year’s Tour de France by being the first black South African to compete in cycling’s most famous race.

The 25-year-old will be one of the eight riders for Africa’s only top-flight professional cycling team Qhubeka-Assos at the Tour, which runs from 26 June until 18 July.

He will be the only African on the team that will be jointly led by Australia’s Simon Clarke and Austrian Michael Gogl as well as including the Italian 2015 Vuelta a Espana winner Fabio Aru.

“Being selected to ride in my first Tour de France is an absolute dream come true for me,” Dlimani said.external-link

“It’s always been an childhood dream and now that I’m about to live it makes it feel surreal.

“I think it speaks to what the team is about, the Ubuntu spirit [I am because we are], and how we change people’s lives because it is honestly a very special moment: to come from a small township and then to go to the Tour de France.”

He becomes the latest rider to progress from the South African-registered team’s development squad and onto the UCI WorldTour.

Humble beginnings

South African cyclist Nic Dlamini

The 25-year-old, who grew up in an informal settlement in Cape Town, first caught the eye as a runner before moving into cycling where his talents saw him move to the UCI’s World Cycling Centre Africa in Potchefstroom, South Africa.

“Considering where I come from it would simply have been impossible for me to have the opportunity to ride at the Tour de France if it wasn’t for Team Qhubeka-Assos,” he explained.

“The platform that they’ve provided me, and other riders from Africa, to compete at the highest level in cycling has been critical.

“I really hope that this will serve as a reference of hope and inspiration to many young South Africans, and people around the world, who have been working really hard to reach their dreams. My hope is that they take from this that anything is possible.

“I want to race the Tour to inspire more kids on Qhubeka bikes to follow in my footsteps and to experience the world like I have, for more kids in communities to put their hands up for bikes to work hard like I did, to dream big.”

According to the team “Dlamini’s style of racing will likely see his talents deployed in the offensive strategy the team will look to pursue during the race, while also playing a key supporting role in the flatter stages.”

The team is completed by Belgium’s Victor Campenaerts, Max Walscheid of Germany, debutant Sean Bennett of the USA and Colombian Sergio Henao.

Qhubeka-Assos’ team principal Douglas Ryder also hopes that Dlamini’s inclusion is a special moment.

“For Nic, what a moment though; his story is simply an incredible one and for him to have earned this opportunity shows that dreams really do come true, and for the team to have provided that opportunity makes me incredibly proud,” he said.

“He’s always been an individual that has stepped up and taken the opportunities that he’s fought for; and he does so again as he lines up at the startline in Brest on the sport’s biggest stage in front of the world.

“This will culminate in an incredible moment for him, South Africa and especially for our team.

“His selection speaks to everything about what we’ve created and built with this team through providing hope, an opportunity and then ultimately the platform to be on the biggest stage of all, the Tour de France.”

The only African rider to have worn the Tour de France leader’s famous ‘yellow jersey’ is Dlamini’s compatriot Darryl Impey, who wore it for two stages in 2013.

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In COVID hit Asia, mixed messages on refugee vaccinations | Coronavirus pandemic News




Medan, Indonesia – Earlier this month, dozens of Rohingya refugees landed on a deserted island off the coast of Indonesia’s Aceh Province.

The refugees had been at sea for more than 100 days, having left Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh in a rickety wooden fishing boat, and were spotted huddling on uninhabited Idaman Island by local fishermen who used the island as a rest stop between fishing trips.

By June 5, just a day after their arrival, all 81 refugees, including children, had been vaccinated against COVID-19.

“The refugees were vaccinated in conjunction with the local government,” Nasruddin, the humanitarian coordinator of Geutanyoe Foundation, an NGO which provides education and psychosocial support to refugees in Indonesia and Malaysia, told Al Jazeera.

“When we found them, they were in a crisis situation on the island with no food, water or electricity, so local residents brought them food and we also brought them 50 tanks of water,” he added. “The feeling on the ground was that we needed to share our vaccines with the refugees in order to protect them as well. No one complained that the vaccines were being given to refugees.”

Aceh Province has been widely praised by humanitarian groups, NGOs and the general public for vaccinating Rohingya refugees, but elsewhere in Southeast Asia, asylum seekers, refugees and migrant workers have not been so lucky.

Hard line

When Nasruddin assessed the 81 refugees on Idaman Island, they told him that they had wanted to go to Malaysia. Some had family members who were already living there, while others were under the impression that the country had a more liberal policy towards refugees than its neighbours.

Some of the Rohingya refugees who arrived in Aceh earlier this month. They told NGOs that they had wanted to go to Malaysia because they had family there or thought it would be more welcoming to refugees than other countries in Southeast Asia [Cek Mad/AFP]

But like most countries in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention and while the government has said it will vaccinate everyone living in the country, it has also taken a hard line on undocumented migrants and refugees, including Rohingya.

“In February, the cabinet decided that in the interest of pandemic recovery all foreigners would receive vaccination free of charge, including refugees and undocumented migrants,” Lilianne Fan, the co-founder and international director of Geutanyoe Foundation who is based in Kuala Lumpur, told Al Jazeera.

“The COVID-19 Immunisation Task Force and Science Minister Khairy Jamaluddin as coordinator of the vaccination programme, have been vocal advocates of this approach.

“However, the recent statement of the minister of home affairs that those without valid documents should not be vaccinated, combined with renewed crackdown on undocumented migrants, contradicts the government’s earlier position and will simply drive more people into hiding and slow down Malaysia’s pandemic recovery.”

Malaysia went into its second strict lockdown at the beginning of June after cases of coronavirus surged – stretching hospitals and intensive care units to the limit. The health ministry announced 6,440 new cases on Friday.

The government has indicated that it will ease the lockdown as more people are vaccinated, and Khairy has consistently stressed that the programme will include everyone living in the country.

But as it did during last year’s first lockdown, Malaysia has once again stepped up operations against undocumented migrants.

Malaysia’s Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin has declared that PATI – the acronym for undocumented people in the Malay language – will be detained and sent to immigration detention centres.

This month, he stressed that undocumented migrants had to “surrender” before they would be vaccinated.

In early June, a video from state news agency Bernama showed 156 undocumented migrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar being sprayed with disinfectant in Cyberjaya, near Malaysia’s international airport, after they had been detained.

Last week the immigration department shared a post on its Facebook page – styled like a poster for an action movie – with the headline “Ethnic Rohingya migrants are not welcome”. After an outcry, but not before it had been widely shared among refugee communities, it was deleted.

The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia on Monday expressed concern at “recent statements portraying migrants, undocumented or irregular migrants, refugees and asylum seekers as a threat to the safety and security of the country and a risk to the health of Malaysians” and urged the government to rethink its approach.

“Instilling fear through threats of arrests and detention of undocumented foreigners is counterproductive in light of ongoing efforts to overcome the pandemic and achieve herd immunity,” it said, stressing the clear differences in the situations of migrant workers, and refugees and asylum seekers.

Malaysia closed its borders during the first strict lockdown last year when immigration officers carried out a number of raids on areas under ‘enhanced’ lockdown. Rights groups fear more raids will deter people from coming forward for the vaccine that is crucial to Malaysia ending the COVID pandemic [File: Lim Huey Teng/Reuters]

Rohingya made up about 57 percent of the 179,570 refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia at the end of May.

Unofficial estimates suggest the country may have as many as three million undocumented migrants, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Widespread problem

The mixed messaging on vaccinations for refugees is not exclusive to Malaysia.

In a statement released in early June, the UN refugee agency warned that a shortage of vaccines in the Asia Pacific region was putting the lives of refugees and asylum seekers at risk.

“Refugees remain especially vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. Overcrowded settings, coupled with limited water and sanitation facilities, can contribute to increased infection rates and an exponential spread of the virus,” UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic said in the statement.

There are almost 900,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, making it the single largest and most densely populated cluster of refugee camps in the world. According to Mahecic, the number of COVID-19 cases in the camps has increased dramatically in the last two months.

As of 31 May, there had been more than 1,188 confirmed cases among the refugee population, with more than half of these cases recorded in May alone.

None of the refugees in Cox’s Bazar has yet been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Mahecic added that, in many countries in the Asia Pacific region, there were not enough vaccines to go around, leading to groups such as migrant workers and asylum seekers being sidelined.

The UNHCR had observed a “worrying increase” in the number of coronavirus cases among refugees and asylum seekers in countries including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, he said.

Indonesia, at least, appears to be starting to do more to address the problem.

The UNHCR says COVID-19 has begun to accelerate in the crowded refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, but no Rohingya living there have been vaccinated [File: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]

Other parts of the country have started to follow Aceh’s lead, according to the IOM, which vaccinated more than 900 refugees in the Indonesian city of Pekanbaru in Riau Province in early June in collaboration with the local government.

“IOM applauds the response of the City Government of Pekanbaru for making vaccines available to the refugee community in the city,” Ariani Hasanah Soejoeti, the national media and communications officer of IOM Indonesia told Al Jazeera, adding that all refugees in the city over the age of 18 have now received vaccines.

“Vaccines are one of our most critical and cost-effective tools to prevent outbreaks and keep individuals and therefore entire communities safe and healthy,” she said.

“The virus knows no borders or nationality; and neither should our solidarity.”

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Why Ethiopia’s 'alphabet generation' feel betrayed by Abiy




PM Abiy Ahmed swept to power after mass protests, but his Oromo community still feel like outsiders.

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