My name is Munni Devi and I live in Lodipur, a village in Maner block, not too far from the state capital of Patna. For the last year I have been engaged as a child protection volunteer with Aangan Trust. I am also a teacher at the primary school in Lodipur, and this is where I learnt about the opportunity to become a volunteer from Phoolmala di, who is also a child protection volunteer and conducts sessions at the school.
In this role, I regularly interact with about 50 girls and 25 women in my community. Before the lockdown, we would have monthly meetings, where we would discuss issues related to child safety—how to keep oneself safe, what the early warning signs of harm are, creating safety plans, making plans for continuing education, and so on.
After the lockdown was announced, it has not been possible to conduct meetings as we are not allowed to gather in groups, and so we have found other ways to stay connected with the girls and women in the community.
4 AM: I spend the first part of my day completing all my household responsibilities. Since the school is closed, it isn’t really necessary for me to wake up so early, but over the years I’ve become used to this, and I didn’t want to break the habit just because we are in a lockdown. I usually finish all the housework by 8 AM.
I live with my husband, three children, and mother-in-law.
9 AM: I make a few calls to some of the girls who are part of my safety circle—this is what we call the child safety groups. I speak to each girl at least once every two weeks. I ask them about how they are spending their days or what they do when they feel bored. They may be concerned about their exam results or the situation at home, so we spend some time talking about these things.
Some of the girls in my safety circle live nearby, so I can meet them in person. It’s important that we stay connected to these children. The lockdown has had a deep impact on them—they are facing very challenging situations at home. And since they cannot meet their friends or peers, when we speak, they have an opportunity to share their experiences and concerns.
Once parents fall into the habit of sending their children to do this work, it becomes difficult to stop it from happening.
These calls also allow me to conduct a risk assessment of their situation. Many of these children are at risk of facing domestic violence, child labour, and even child marriage. Some of the girls in my group have never been to school, which makes them even more vulnerable. Lodipur, where I live, is close to the Ganga and people carry out sand mining on the banks of the river. There are also many brick kilns nearby. Both industries employ children as labour and as the lockdown lifts, this work will start again. Children can make INR 100-150 for four hours of work. Once parents fall into the habit of sending their children to do this work, it becomes difficult to stop it from happening. And the children like it too! From the money that they make, they keep a small amount for themselves and give the rest to their parents. In the short-term, they may be helping their families, but they don’t realise that they could ruin the rest of their childhood.
So, we need to be very vigilant, and I make it a point to speak to these children and their families and discourage them from engaging in child labour.
11.30 AM: I step out of my home to visit two members of my women’s group—Renu Devi and Malati*—to find out how they are and whether they have heard of any cases of domestic violence. I only visit one or two women each day, so that others in the community don’t get too suspicious or ask too many questions about why I am stepping out of my house to meet others. Sometimes, I need to make up excuses for why I am visiting them, also to avoid creating any suspicion or backlash. Renu Devi and Malati are also part of a whisper circle—a group of women who look out for each other and help each other in case of distress.
As volunteers, we cannot be present everywhere, but through the whisper circles, many women can keep their eyes and ears open.
Many women in the basti (settlement) are part of these whisper circles. We set up them up after the lockdown began, as we realised that instances of domestic violence were increasing. While some helplines were working, the teams could not come to people’s houses or provide safe spaces for women and children who were in distress. All they could do was pass the information on to the police. But if a police officer shows up at somebody’s house, reprimands the husband and family and leaves, the woman’s situation will be worse. We needed alternative solutions. And so, we spoke to the mukhiya (village chief) and asked him if we could share his number, along with the helpline number, with women in the community. This is how we started the whisper circles. I identified groups of women and handed out chits of papers with phone numbers that they could call if they or somebody they knew was facing domestic violence. I purposely don’t ask women to save the numbers on their phones, because if their husbands or other family members find out that they have saved a helpline number, they might get into more trouble. Every time I form a whisper circle and share this information with a group of women, I ask them to share it with others.
As volunteers, we cannot be present everywhere, but through the whisper circles, many women can keep their eyes and ears open. When they hear of any cases of violence, they inform their entire group and try to find ways in which to intervene and disrupt the violence.
I also encouraged my husband to create a male group that can support our efforts. Sometimes, it is difficult for women to speak to and reason with men when they have been drinking and become violent. It is easier for other men to reason with them. This is why I asked my husband to join me in this effort. He has identified 8-9 men from our basti whom we can involve while resolving incidences of domestic violence.
3.30 PM: I receive a phone call from Jyoti Kumari*, a 13-year-old who is a member of one of my safety circles. Today, she calls me with good news.
Our conversation today is very different from the one we had on another afternoon, a few weeks ago. Jyoti had called me and said, “You said that child marriage should not happen, but my family is planning my marriage. I don’t want to get married so early, so please stop this from happening.” We had discussed the issue of child marriage in our safety circle meetings, and so Jyoti knew that this was the wrong thing to do. I went to her home and tried to convince her mother not to go ahead with the marriage, but she was unrelenting. Her mother said, “We have no income in this lockdown, but we still have expenses. Since Jyoti is young, we will have to pay less money to the groom’s family if we fix her marriage now.”
I returned the next day with some other women who knew Jyoti’s mother well. I thought they might have a better chance at convincing Jyoti’s mother not to go ahead with the marriage. But they were also unsuccessful. Over several weeks, I had to try different techniques, including using the fear of authorities, because child marriage is illegal after all. The family was even prepared to leave the basti and conduct the marriage elsewhere.
When I learnt that there was an opportunity to help young girls, I took it up immediately.
Today, Jyoti calls me to confirm that the marriage has been called off. I heave a huge sigh of relief. It has taken many weeks and many conversations with her parents to convince them not to marry Jyoti at such a young age.
I myself got married at a very young age and was forced to sit at home, bear children, and take care of the house. This has also happened to so many other women I know. I don’t want what happened with me to happen to any other girl. That’s why when I learnt that there was an opportunity to help young girls, so that they can fight their own battles without fear and build a future for themselves, I took it up immediately.
*Names changed to maintain confidentiality.
As told to IDR.
- Learn more about how individuals can support people who are in home quarantine with an abuser.
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- Reach out to the National Commission for Women’s emergency WhatsApp helpline (7217735372) if you or anyone you know is facing abuse.
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