Brave father reunited with his daughter

"First when I heard I was going to get married, I thought this is the end of my life, and thought of ending it or get my anger out on someone. But there was a lot of pressure on my family from society, because during that time my father was very sick, our house got sold, we had no roof over our heads and so all this pressure was weighing my parents down and they succumbed to societal pressure and given me no option but to say yes I had to succumb to pressure and I said yes," reflects Rajkumari, a young girl from Agra who was married at the age of 16.

In the grips of extreme financial hardship her father Ashok made a heartbreaking decision he would regret forever, but due to his courage, and the guidance from key members of the men care group within his community, this proud father and his daughter have been reunited under the same roof and they've never been happier.

Ashok describes the feeling many fathers feel when they discovered they are having a girl, and shared how this impacts the gender bias for many fathers. " As soon as a girl is born there is a constant worry in the mind, how will we care for her, how will we get her married, how will we pay for the dowry during the time of her marriage?" he said.

For many fathers they know the girls will get married and go, so they focus on educating the boys and want to invest more in the boys because he will be the future provider for the family.

A girl is considered as 'Parayadhan' meaning 'someone else's property' so why should we invest in her future or well-being if one day she will belong to someone else. The life of a girl from birth to death is viewed from this tainted lens that a girl is 'Parayadhan'.

For Ashok, he loves his daughters incredibly deeply so this was certainly not the case, however faced with the overwhelming struggle to put food on the table for his eight children, he was lured by the prospect of marrying both daughters at once, with the benefit of paying dowry only once to the groom's family.

It's a decision he still deeply regrets, and in reflection he knows his mind, at the time, was deeply clouded as he witnessed men beginning to ogle his daughters who were fast approaching adolescence, and as he became aware of the more sexualised nature of men towards them he also saw this as a sense of security and opportunity, which in his current financial state he may not be able to offer. In the heat of the hour, a hesitant helpless Ashok got both his older and younger daughter married at the same time into the same family.

However, what quickly became apparent following the marriage was that his daughter Rajkumari was incredibly unhappy, largely due to the fact she was being mistreated by the husband and his family. After consultation with one his community members, who is a key member of the World Vision's men care programme, he learned more about the pitfalls of child marriage and why it is so bad for a young girl's health and well as her opportunities. The opportunity to gain an education, both of the formal kind but also in life is stripped away from these children which is even more troubling when they will soon be expected to bring new life into the world as well - which is where this cycle perpetuates.

With this renewed perspective, and an enormous amount of courage Ashok made the brave decision to bring his daughter home, a decision which the husband's family were very unhappy with. This is unheard of in India and is testament to the changing attitudes towards women in this fascinating community of Agra, and Ashok certainly has no regrets.

"There was a lot of anger, lot of rage in community when I took the bold step to bring my younger daughter back, but I've made the decision. People have come to my home and tried to persuade me to send her back because it's not a right cultural practice, but I say to them 'you can impose that culture on your daughters but I'm not going to jeopardize the future of my daughter'," says Ashok.

(Photo description: World Vision Australia staff member Heath with Rajkumari, her father Ashok and their family.)

Rajkumari's mother said her daughter has never been happier, and whilst she returned with low confidence and self-esteem she's soon regained this and is on her path to becoming the breadwinner herself having now completed a beautician's course, which World Vision helped to provide, with hopes she may one day open her own salon.

"When I got married I was totally broken at that time, but my parents brought me back and I'm feeling very happy and the will to live has returned. Girls are equal to boys and if encouraged can excel and surpass them too. The only thing girls lack is the opportunity and support which should be given to them. I am more confident and courageous now and have the capacity of taking care of myself and my family then how am I less than a boy?," said Rajkumari.

It's reflective of the changing attitudes towards women in this community in Agra, and in the case of Rajkumari she is now on the path to becoming the breadwinner herself - a significant shift in role for a women. Irrespective of what will follow there is one thing for certain, Ashok shares a clear vision for Rajkumari and his daughters, no matter what the financial consequences.

"Now I will educate her and wait for her marriage. No matter how long it takes. I am happy with our decision to keep her at home and educate her." And he plans of helping spread this message to others in the community along with the Men Care Group.

The group empowered me and now it's my responsibility to empowered others, and this is how we can start changing mind sets in the community.

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