UNICEF just published a success story on female education in India, and it’s inspiring. It profiles thirteen-year-old Arfa Khatun, who refused when her parents tried to commit her to marriage, and her parents accepted that refusal. That’s pretty amazing, especially in West Bengal, where almost half of marriages involve girls under 18.
Arfa Khatun was a student at a government-run school that was part of a UNICEF program that educates students about their rights, builds leadership and communication skills, and teaches problem-solving. The school program is intended to improve the lives of child laborers. As far as I can tell, preventing child marriage is an excellent unintended consequence.
For an against child marriage to work, you need to reach parents as well as children. There is no point in getting students excited about opportunities their parents will not allow them to have. In the case of Arfa Khatun, her father didn’t initially accept her decision. It took the pleas of her teachers and schoolmates to convince her father to let her stay unmarried, but he did relent.
It is a success that Arfa Khatun decided to refuse a child marriage, and it’s a success that her parents could be convinced to let that refusal stand. But thirteen-year-old girls shouldn’t have to defend themselves from marriage. Any school programs need to be part of a larger effort to prevent child marriage; Arfa Khatun shouldn’t have been in that situation in the first place. Efforts like this are a good beginning, but they’re not the whole solution.