On February 16, 13-year-old Mamtaz Begum of Assam would have been married off to a man three times her age, if it were not for a youth from her village, Illias Rahman Sarkar. Mamtaz is a Class VIII student of Shilayer Par Middle English Madrassa in Kokrajhar district of of the state.
Earlier this year, Mamtaz’s parents — Jaharuddin Karikor and Salma Bibi — pulled her out of school and got her engaged to Hasmat Ali, 33, who had approached them seeking her hand in marriage.
“I did not want to get married. I want to study, get a good job. I’m so happy” — Mamtaz Begum
The wedding was set for February 16. Luckily for Mamtaz, on February 14, Valentine’s Day, Illias, played her saviour. After hearing of the impending child marriage, he kicked up a storm on Facebook to gather support against the illegal act, compelling the police to intervene and stop the wedding.
Mamtaz was spared the horror of child marriage.
On the day of her scheduled wedding, Mamtaz went back to school. She can’t thank social media and Illias enough. “I did not want to get married. I want to study, get a good job. I’m so happy,” Mamtaz says.
The thwarted bridegroom, Hasmat Ali (name changed), is a small-time businessman of the village.
Social media saviour
Illias, 25, an educated resident of Shilayer Par, heard of the impending child marriage from Abdul Jalil Sheikh, the headmaster of 1573 Shilayer Par Lower Primary School. Mamtaz studied in this school till Class IV.
Aware of the ills of child marriage, Illias decided to do something about it. He brought up the matter with the president of Bilashipara All Assam Minority Students Union, Mustafizur Rehman, who first promised action, but later backed out by telling him that “the sub-divisional officer is out of town” and hence he would not be able to act in the case.
The village was divided on the matter. One group asked Illias not to “poke his nose in a family matter.” The other, a much smaller group, wanted the marriage stopped.
“The social structure of a remote village is very complex. A young guy cannot go to the girl’s house and ask her parents to call off her marriage,” says Illias, adding that he was upset and restless as preparations for the marriage were on in full swing.
On the morning of February 14, Illias reported the matter to officer-in-charge of Kajigaon police station assistant sub-inspector (ASI) Suneel Rai, who promised to visit the girl’s house and take action if the wedding was found to be illegal. “The road to Shilayer Par village is broken and so it is not possible for me to go this evening. But I will see to it in the morning,” Suneel Rai told Illias.
Illias also invoked Napolean Bonaparte and pointed out the negative health implications of early marriages on girls, while emphasising the importance of educating the girl child
But Illias was not convinced that the police would act.
Digital savvy Illias then hit upon the idea of mustering support on social media to stop the marriage. He created a Facebook page in Assamese entitled ‘Forum against child marriage’ and wrote about Mamtaz’s upcoming wedding. He gave details of her address, school and age and implored people to help him stop the marriage.
He also invoked Napolean Bonaparte and pointed out the negative health implications of early marriages on girls, while emphasising the importance of educating the girl child.
The post went viral.
Social support pours in
“Human rights activists, the Assam Human Rights Commission and local TV channels contacted me after my post went viral. I asked them to go to the child’s house and ensure that the parents call off the marriage,” says Illias. “It was Valentine’s Day!” he adds, smiling.
On February 15, ASI Rai called on Mamtaz’s parents and ordered them to stop the wedding or face police action. The couple were left with no option but to comply.
When Mamtaz’s parents told Hasmat Ali about the developments, he reportedly told them, “I didn’t know that the girl was so young. I too am against the marriage now.”
“Human rights activists, the Assam Human Rights Commission and local TV channels contacted me after my post went viral. I asked them to go to the child’s house and ensure that the parents call off the marriage” — Illias
The incident was played up by the local media and Salma Bibi told Illias in front of TV journalists: “I want my daughter to study. If someone is willing to bear her educational expenses, we will call off her marriage.” Soon after, Illiyas posted her plea on FB.
Yet again, social media came to Mamtaz’s rescue. Shah Alom, a young assistant professor at a local college, responded on Facebook: “I would like to bear all her educational expenses if her family does not mind. Illias Bhai, please inform her family if possible.”
Every third girl in Assam gets married before reaching the legal of 18 years. The latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS) for 2015-2016 report said at least 32.6% of women in Assam in the age group 0f 20-24 got married before they were 18 years old.