Odisha: Meet the Tribal Youth Leader Who Is Fighting Against Child Marriage

Manju Patra, 21, hails from the Gond tribal community in Odisha. Her fight against child marriage has been long and persistent. Child marriages are widely prevalent in her milieu and have deep socio-cultural roots but Manju exemplifies the transformative power of education and intentionality. She is currently pursuing her bachelors in business management and is a respected youth leader.

Manju’s journey is inspired by the story of her own mother Sivararti Patra, who is a child marriage survivor.

At the age of 14, Sivararti was married to Manju’s father, Nichal Patra, who was only 17 at the time. Deprived of agency, education and any knowledge about reproductive health, she gave birth to 14 children, out of which only four survived. Her pain, helplessness and emotional and physical challenges inspired Manju to change the narrative of her own life.

She became aware of issues like violence against women (VAW) and child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) even more acutely when she joined a collective of adolescent girls mentored by Oxfam India, in Bhorbata village in Odisha’s Kalahandi district. From claiming her right to education as a young girl to not relinquishing her agency as a woman, Manju has come a long way. She is today the president of the women’s group formed by National Alliance of Women’s Organisations (NAWO), Odisha, and sensitises people – via meetings and workshops – about the negative consequences of child marriages and gender inequality.

Manju educating young girls. Photo: Oxfam India.

She has evolved into a fierce and brave agent of change and unapologetically speaks her mind against social evils like CEFM and about sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). She is now determined to spearhead change in her community by mobilising young boys and girls because they will go on to define a better future. As she says, “Without enough exposure and gender-sensitive education, it is hard for boys and girls to make friends but now when we work together, we get along so easily because we are bound by a common cause. Many boys who used to make fun of my brother for helping me in my projects have now joined my mission.”

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Not too long ago, she and a few others, fought tooth and nail to prevent the early marriage of an adolescent boy in her village. The matter had caste-based complications and was very sensitive. When Manju informed the concerned Child Marriage Prohibition Officer (CMPO), about the issue, there was a huge uproar. Manju had to face threats and abuses from the boy’s family and could not go to college or even the market. She mustered the courage to inform the police and even though the marriage eventually did take place, the youth collective of Borbhata village brought this issue up for discussion with the community. They understood what Manju and her team was trying to say, they offered their full support and promised to spread awareness about the same. On Women’s Day this year, Manju was felicitated by the Kalahandi district administration for her endeavour to end CEFM in her village.

Manju engaged in a data collection exercise on SRHR research. Photo: Oxfam India.

Her association with Oxfam India and NAWO has exposed Manju to feminist research on SRHR and she is using this to spread messages on sexuality, the necessity of choice and consent in relationships, and ending period taboo. She has keen interest in laws related to domestic violence, child marriage, the right to education and women’s rights.

She says, “As youth, it is our responsibility to spread awareness against obsolete and wrong practices. We can no longer live in ignorance and allow harmful customs to deprive the young of their right to education and health. My plans for the future include starting a business, developing my talent for writing and using thematic poems to educate people about the ill-effects and legal ramifications of child marriage and domestic violence.”

It gives Manju great satisfaction when her youth collective is able to convince parents to give up superstitious, discriminatory ceremonies that isolate girls during menstruation or when they agree to send their daughters to schools and colleges. She says, “Until 2017, before these projects came into being, no girl in our community could ever imagine going to school beyond a certain age. What we are now seeing is the beginning of a revolution.”

Savvy Soumya Misra manages content and communications at Oxfam India. Rukmini Panda is based out of Bhubaneshwar and works on gender at Oxfam India._

All images provided by Oxfam India.