In 2014, Rehana (name changed), a 15-year old from a school in West Bengal’s Sunderbans region, was rescued from a red light area in Delhi. The Class IX student had been ensnared by traffickers who then sold her off in Kolkata. After being brought back, the local administration and a non-governmental organisation (NGO) re-enrolled her in school. They feared she would drop out in months. Her script ran differently though. Rehana is today training to become a nurse.
Activist Rishi Kanta, whose NGO Shakti Vahini in Delhi aids in the rescue of trafficked girls and women, believes it is the West Bengal government’s girl child welfare scheme, Kanyashree Prakalpa, that has helped Rehana and others like her make a new life.
“Not only has the scheme prevented schoolgirls vulnerable to trafficking from dropping out, it has also offered a lifeline to girls like Rehana who did not have much institutional support after being rescued,” says Rishi Kanta. In June, Kanyashree Prakalpa was awarded the United Nation’s Public Service Award at The Hague.
Instituted in 2013, Kanyashree Prakalpa is a conditional cash-transfer scheme aimed at improving the status and well-being of the girlchild. Official statistics say there are around 41.2 lakh beneficiaries (as of July 25, 2017) of the scheme, implemented through 15,826 institutes and schools. “We want to ensure that every eligible person gets the benefits of the scheme,” says Shashi Panja, Minister of State for Women & Child Development and Social Welfare.
West Bengal was a ripe case for such a scheme. Although child marriage is prohibited by law, the State was among the top five when it came to early marriages. Further, in districts such as Murshidabad, Birbhum, Malda and Purulia, every second girlchild was found married off before 18. These are also districts where trafficking of girls is fairly common.
Now, National Family Health Survey statistics show that the number of women married before 18 has dropped from 53.3% in 2004-05 to 40.7% in 2015-16, though still above the national average of 26.8%.
Experts says the launch of the cash incentive scheme has convinced many families to send their daughters to school and also delay their marriage (the scheme offers a one-time grant of ₹25,000, apart from annual scholarships, when the girl turns 18 and if she is studying in school or undergoing vocational training).
In April 2015, when Lakshmi Gorai from Raipur in Bankura district was pulled out of school to be forcibly married off, the district administration intervened and stopped her parents. When the family claimed they had no means to keep the 15-year-old in school, the authorities enrolled Gorai and other school-going girls from the neighbourhood in the Kanyashree scheme.
Ayesha Sultana, a first-year B.A. student at Women’s Christian College in Kolkata, was enrolled in the Kanyashree scheme by her school when she was in Class VIII. The yearly scholarships, she says, helped her continue studies, and subsequently encouraged 20 other girls from her lower-middle-class neighbourhood in Mominpur to join school.
“The scheme has come as encouragement to pursue higher studies. The ₹25,000 grant will help me complete my graduation,” Sultana says. Officials say the scheme has also helped girls stay ahead of boys in the board-level examinations. This year, girls accounted for 69% of the candidates in the West Bengal Madrasah Board Examination.
The tangible benefits aside, officials say the scheme has motivated young girls, especially in the rural and semi-urban areas, and encouraged them to stand up for themselves. In many places, Kanyashree Sanghas (associations) have been formed and according to reports, these are now the first line of defence against child marriages. The sanghas also help identify girls who have dropped out of school.
Recently, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced that the scheme would soon be extended to cover postgraduation studies as well.