Child marriages & impact on mental health

The impact of early marriage on the reproductive health of women has been well documented, but the effect on mental health often gets overlooked. Child brides often find themselves struggling to cope with anxiety and depression and find little sympathy or support in their marital home.

A sociological study done by the University of Calicut among 600 women who had married before the legal age found that most of them were in conflict with their husbands and other members of the marital home. They were under pressure to take over the household chores and produce a child early.

Any assertion of right or voicing an opinion was treated as a challenge and often met with ridicule, even physical abuse.

A new India wide study by the Delhi-based SAMA Resource Group for Women and Health is also examining the wider impact of early marriage on a woman’s health. Early findings of the report say that when girls are forced to leave school and marry, they experience a loss of mobility. The immediate result is a loss of companionship as they are no longer free to meet their friends. This is a major cause for distress.

Every aspect of their lives comes under close watch – from what they wear to whom they speak to – so there is a constant feeling of apprehension that they might break the rules.

Any sign of sadness or unduly quiet behaviour is regarded as proper and hence gets ignored. It is only when the signs of mental health become very obvious that outside help is sought and this is not professional help, but from traditional faith healers.

“Whenever there is physical violence, it shows up in scars”, says Praful Kamble, Program Officer of SNEHA’s Little Sisters program which has been working towards bringing addressing domestic violence issues in Mumbai’s Dharavi area. “But the impact on the mind is 25% more. There is depression and a sense of shock. And when there is negative support from the family, the woman feels even more isolated.”

Geeta (name changed) experienced verbal violence from her in laws and husband, as her son was constantly ill. Even her sisters-in-law did not support her. One day she threw kerosene on herself and set herself on fire.

“I did it out of despair”, she says. “Caring for a sick child was stressful as it is and then to be constantly blamed for it was a miserable feeling. I was worried for my child and had no idea where to seek help.”

There are multiple linkages between early marriage and health. Mental health is a key one, and needs greater focus in India’s programs and policies.



Marking 16 Days of Activism

Mumbai’s reputation as the safest city for women has taken a beating after the release this week of a new study that shows that the financial capital witnessed a surge of 49% in crimes against women in 2014-15. While this may be a heartening sign that more women are coming forward to report such crimes, the staggering near 50% jump should compel us a society to reflect.

This year’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence was an opportunity to do just that. Violence against women in India takes many forms. From sexual assault, public humiliation, abuse, domestic violence trafficking or ‘honour’ killing, crimes against women have more than doubled in the last 10 years according to the latest data of the National Crime Records Bureau.

One of the aims of the 16 days campaign is to raise awareness about this violence at different levels – local, national, regional and international. As part of this, campaigns and training workshops were conducted at various settlements across Mumbai city by SNEHA in collaboration with local organizations.

At community centres in settlements in Dharavi and Kandivili, daylong workshops were held with Safecity, a Mumbai-based organization that conducts campaigns to spread awareness about gender-based crimes.

IMG_0280The tone of these workshops was informal and interactive. Participants were asked about public spaces, their notions of what was safe and unsafe and interestingly there were several similarities in what boys and girls regarded as unsafe public spaces. The conversation would then broaden to include issues of sexual violence and harassment. The idea was to create a safe zone where participants could voice their opinions honestly about issues like consent, victim blaming, marital rape and domestic violence. They were also asked to map their localities, marking out areas that were regarded as safe or unsafe.


“Through the maps, we saw the reasons why many areas were considered safe and unsafe”, said a member of the Safecity team. “Safe spaces generally were areas that people frequented, or areas near places of worship and police stations. Unsafe spaces were much more in number and included spaces that were dark and secluded and where crime had happened before.’

The next step in this campaign would be for this group of youngsters to conduct a survey of their areas based on a survey form SNEHA has prepared that is based on perceptions of people regarding sexual harassment.

Violence against women is one among the most important factors preventing their full participation in the economy. Above all it’s a fundamental violation of human rights. Involving boys and young men in such campaigns send out the message that it is time they got involved in ending the scourge of violence against women and girls in their homes and communities

Safety as a human right

When one talks of “access to toilets”, the first thought that pops in the mind is “sanitation”. In Dharavi, however, the immediate association with “access to toilets” is “safety of women and girls”. Why ‘safety’, you ask?

SNEHA’s toilet painting campaign

‘Safety’ because:

– groups of men and boys are always hanging around outside public toilets, loitering, drinking, gambling, sexually harassing women and girls.

– men and boys sexually find toilets an easy place to target a large number of women. Men and boys see public toilets as opportunities to stare, ogle, pass comments, whistle, grope, pinch, abuse, rape women and girls.

– women and girls feel uncomfortable, violated, targeted, harassed, denied of their basic human rights of access to safe toilets and a life free from violence.

– women and girls (and their families) feel like the onus is on them to ensure their own safety.

– women and girls are the ones who are forced to find solutions to ensure their safety such as going to the toilet early in the morning to avoid harassment and their harassers or going in a group with friends or with a family member or avoid going to the toilet several times during the day.

The 2011 Census of India found out that nearly 12 per cent of urban households resort to open defecation and another 8 per cent use public or shared facilities. Not only is this a health hazard, but it undermines the dignity of women and girls and makes them vulnerable to harassment and violence.

SNEHA addresses both, the issue of health of women and girls and the issue of gender-based violence in Dharavi, through campaigns, street theatre, meetings, support groups and vigilance groups. We raise awareness of these basic human rights in the community, and encourage and support collective, indigenous responses to combat violations of these rights. SNEHA’s men’s group members also act as vigilantes against sexual harassment of women and girls in public places, which includes the areas where public toilets are located.

Toilet tales from Dharavi

Last month, two sisters from Badaun district, Uttar Pradesh were allegedly raped and murdered when they went to answer the call of nature in the fields at night. Most people in Dharavi do not have toilets in their residence.We asked four adolescents in Dharavi how safe they felt when they visit the nearby toilet. 

Pratibha, 14, studies in class 9

We have a mori at home where we can have a bath and pee. For bathroom (meaning WC), I have to walk about five minutes.  I go just once a day in the morning. I do not feel the need to go after that.

I heard about a girl being molested there. Some boy who was on the way to the toilet caught her. I also heard of a five year old girl being molested there. It became a police case.

If the boys say or do something, it spoils our reputation. Our fathers too.

If I have to use the toilet in the night, my mother comes with me. Or else a friend comes along.
Hetal, 13, studies in class 6

We have a bathroom at home, not a latrine. For that I have to step out and walk for five minutes. We have to pay one Rs to use the latrine. I use it around 2-3 times.

I never go to the toilet alone if I can help it, especially in the night. My mother has told me that whether it is night or day, take someone along to the toilet. She usually comes with me, or else I go with my friend. Only when she is sick, I go alone.

I have heard of rape cases in that area. When I was a child, I was told that there was a bus which stopped there and picked girls for begging.

There are always boys on the way to the toilet. They come around 9 pm every night. They come with bikes sometimes. They say things like – palat ke dekh (turn around and look at me).  I once shouted back at them and said – Ghar main ma behen nahi (Do you not have mothers and sisters at home)? My mother had told me never to confront those boys, but I was very upset that day.

It is not fair that we do not have toilets at home. One of my friends did not use the toilet all night because her mother was not at home and her friend refused to come. Her stomach started hurting.

Boys have nothing to be scared of. They are the ones who trouble us. We girls have to be careful.


Kruti, 18, goes to college.

I do not live in a nice area. Many people who I grew up with left the area. It is not safe for girls. Many people in my area already have bathrooms inside their houses. There are hardly any people using the public toilets any more.

Till recently we had a horrible public toilet. It used to be so dirty. I would not like to go there. I would wait for half an hour to an hour to just use the toilet. Many times I have been late for school. Now we have one toilet for every ten houses. It is easier to keep to it clean and I do not have to wait long to use it.

I go to the toilet alone. It is just two minutes away. On the way to the toilet, we always find men around. Sometimes they just say something obscene and walk away. Men play cards or match (cricket) near the toilet. They always make comments.

I do not pay attention if someone makes a comment. If I confront that person, people will point their fingers at me only. They will say she must have done something to provoke the boys. It is best not to say anything.

One girl I know confronted these men who were passing obscene comments. But when she went home and told her parents about it, she was told – Tujhe hi sahi se jaana chahiye (You should have stepped out decently). They told her that she should not have worn jeans and T shirt.

I felt bad for her. She did not wear those clothes to show anything or provoke. She just stepped out to go to the toilet. In any case, even if you wear a dupatta and leave, you cannot hide your body. The men are going to comment anyway.

There is no light near the toilet or inside the toilet in the night. The bulb just does not switch on. We have to take a torch. It is just fully dark. I have to take someone along if I want to use the toilet at night.

My mother has always told me not to talk to my friends near the toilet. If I go to the toilet in the afternoon, I feel weird. There is no one there.


Vineet, 14, studies in class 9

The toilet is just one minute away. There are men smoking cigarette and drinking liquor there. My father has told me not to talk to anyone there. I am a little scared of them. They could beat me up if they want to. I always go with my father.

The toilet is sometimes very dirty. I have to wait for it for about 45 minutes to an hour. I sometimes get late to school. I do not go to the toilet even if I want to sometimes. It gives me a stomach ache.

I have seen girls being molested near the toilet. It is horrible. The boys sometimes pull their clothes, their hair. We try intervene sometimes. But, such incidents scare me. These incidents should not happen.

(Names of the adolescents withheld to protect identity)

SNEHA gave us strength

Earlier, Sunita D’Souza, 28 would think that violence was her lot after marriage. Married at the age of 14, she would be beaten black and blue by her in-laws everyday and would suffer their taunts silently.

After associating with SNEHA in 2002, she became a sangini and since then helped a lot of women turn their lives around. From being a girl who wouldn’t step out of the house, she now confidently approaches authorities and tackles issues in her locality such as sexual harassment in public and other forms of violence and abuse.

“Now when I see a man molesting a girl on the road, it feels like a bomb blast in my brain. I cannot tolerate any girl being abused in any way.” said Sunita.

Sunita is among the 150 sanginis trained in crisis intervention during occasions of violence in the community, counselling women and family members and even filing complaints with the police. These sanginis (meaning friend in Hindi) handpicked by SNEHA work voluntarily in the community.

When SNEHA began its work on prevention of violence against women and children, it would conduct regular meetings with women. These meetings helped build perspective on gender, violence, and sexuality in the community. More importantly, the women had to be told that talking about violence in a home is not an issue of shame or dishonour.

“Some of the women in these meetings emerged as leaders. We took them in our fold to build sustainability of the programme, local capacity and leadership. Also, we needed someone on the ground at times of emergency. These women became the eyes and ears for SNEHA. They also work as a group that puts pressure on the community,”said Preethi Pinto, programme co-ordinator, advocacy and communications, SNEHA.

Like Sunita, most of the sanginis had suffered violence themselves. They can relate to other women in similar situations and help them cope with the situation better. “We suffered so much. We do not want other women to go through it,”said Shubhangi Gaikwad, who is in her late 30s. Shubhangi suffered violence from her husband for over seven years, before she approached SNEHA. She later became a sangini.

There is also an obvious shift in the thinking that women should not talk openly about violence. A few months ago, Rashida Shaikh risked hurting herself by trying to save a woman in her locality.

“That woman was being dragged by her drunk husband by cloth tied around her neck. People told me not to intervene in what they said is a family issue. I fought with them and told them that I will get the police if he doesn’t let go of his wife. People do not realise that just because I fought with the man, the woman’s life is saved,” said Rashida.

Most of these women are homemakers, from very conservative backgrounds and not very educated. It is a huge deal for them to step out of the house, confront people and try to rescue women. They now go to the police and demand that complaints be filed. The experiences with SNEHA has empowered them to confront their own problems with authorities, instead of suffering in silence.

Shobha Janga
Shobha Janga

“A policeman was refusing to file a complaint when my daughter lost her cellphone. He kept saying that the children are spoilt these days and own cellphones. I told him its none of his business and insisted a complaint be filed. Finally he had to file a complaint,” said Shobha Janga, who is a sangini since 2002.

These women have come a long way since they first engaged with SNEHA. They have empowered themselves and are now in the position to empower other women like them. One of our sanginis is even pursuing a Masters of Social Work (MSW),” said Bhaskar Kakkad, programme co-ordinator, Prevention of Violence against Women and Children, SNEHA.

Bhanu Dedhia
Bhanu Dedhia

Many of these women have even started working with SNEHA. “I used to be in ghunghat (veil) earlier. I have barely completed my eighth standard. I never even imagined I could work earlier. I started as a sangini and now I am a programme officer. I feel my sanginis should also become strong,” Bhanu Dedhia, who has been associated with SNEHA for 12 years.

The sanginis with Bhaskar Kakkad on the left
The sanginis with Bhaskar Kakkad on the left

The sanginis find strength in each other. “I would not utter a single word outside my home earlier. Now, I tell people that if they try to harm me, my sanginis will get together and teach them a lesson. I am not afraid of anyone any more,”said Rashida.

SNEHA starts a Women’s OPD at Kalwa


On the occasion of World Health Day on May 7, SNEHA in association with Thane Municipal Corporation inaugurated a Women’s OPD that will handle cases of violence against women and children at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Hospital, Kalwa . SNEHA is also running similar OPDs at Lokmanya Tilak Municipal Medical Hospital (Sion Hospital), and KEM Hospital.

The OPD offers a multi-disciplinary crisis intervention and supportive counselling services to women and children facing violence. The OPD will be functional from May 15.

The SNEHA team will also conduct sensitisation programme with the doctors so that cases of violence are referred to them. We hope this OPD offers a ray of hope for women here.

Non-violent communication in violent times

On a hot Saturday afternoon, Queen,  Elvis  Presley, Scarlet Johansson, Wonderwoman, Bubble, Free, Love, Kind, Lavanya, among others got together in an Artisans, an art gallery in Kala Ghoda. Women seemingly from disparate backgrounds and ages got together, assumed names they loved, and discussed the issues that concern them.

About 15 women gathered for a workshop — Negotiating Safe Spaces : Non Violent Communication- a workshop for women organised by SNEHA. Dr Nayreen Daruwalla, programme director, Prevention of Violence against Women and Children and her associate, Gauri Ambavkar, programme coordinator facilitated the workshop. The gallery was showcasing the installations of old saris with slogans of rape. The installations were worn by women from Dharavi who made them for a photo shoot and a fashion show.


The definition of violence, Dr Daruwalla said, has changed over a period of time for women. Earlier women come to SNEHA with bleeding noses and dislocated hands. Now, women talk of violence in the context of emotional violence where they are disrespected, verbally abused and are not given their own safe space. Violence can now be defined as violation of someone’s existence. Unfortunately our culture only reckons physical violence.

“Women are so busy fulfilling their roles that it does not leave us time to feel. Sharing ones needs and feelings is considered a taboo in our society, to the extent that needs are never spoken about over a period of time and become displaced conflicts. ,”said Dr Daruwalla.   Non violent communication gives the strength to a woman to understand her conflicts and assertively share her feelings and needs towards a healthy relationship.

Some of the participants felt that men are even more suppressed than women when it comes to coming out with feelings. “If a boy is playing with a doll, or seen crying he is called a sissy. That itself is violence. These emotions get bottled up over a period of time,” said one of them.

The participants were shown cards with names of emotions written on them, such as Anger, Vulnerable, Peaceful, Inspired among others and were asked to identify with any of them. “When I was a child I would burst into tears at the slightest hurt. Now I realise that I felt I was not allowed to express anger, and so I would burst out crying,” said Gauri.


One of the participants correctly pointed out that while she was angry about something that is going on in her life, but when she examined her emotion closer, she realised that she is angry because she felt vulnerable.

Expressing ones feeling in a non-violent way is crucial. “We are a culture of too many words. Being assertive does not always mean being aggressive, “said Dr Nayreen. The workshop ended with a powerful message that no one can make you feel inferior.

Talking gender in Dharavi

Pointing at posters of Hrithik Roshan, a 13-year old boy said that he is “fittest” and “good-looking”. Kareena Kapoor, the boy said, is beautiful because she is “fair”and has “smooth skin”. On the other hand, Bharati Singh, though a very good comedian, is “fat” and Vinod Thakur, the dancer is not the best looking as he does not have legs. The boy was participating in a SNEHA workshop on sexuality and gender.

In a bid to get adolescents to talk openly about sex, sexuality and gender, SNEHA has organised a series of 18 workshops for adolescents in Dharavi. As part of the programme- “Managing Sexuality”-a Ford Foundation grant project, these workshops delve in topics related to body image, puberty, sexual health, gender violence, relationships, among other adolescent issues. This session about body image is one of them.

The teenagers were also explained the difference between gender and sex. While sex is defined as biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women, gender is a socially constructed roles, behaviors and attributes that a society considers appropriate for men and women.

“Women cannot lift heavy weights. Men cannot have long hair. These are examples of gender constructs,”explained Jayshree Belwade, programme officer who conducted the session with the children.

In the session, the children were shown images of actors without make-up and also a video about how make-up and photoshop can transform an image of a person.

“The before-after images really shocked the children. We wanted them to understand that we should love people for their qualities and not for the way they look,”said Belwade. This workshop also stressed that self esteem should be based on one’s achievements and not on superficial qualities such as good looks. The children were encouraged to talk what they like about their bodies, and their friends.


The need for the workshops for teenagers was felt after preliminary research showed that the gender discrimination in the community was very large. “In the focus group discussions, what really surprised us was that most of the teenagers, their parents and community leaders felt that rape was the woman’s fault. They blamed it on the woman’s clothes or behavior among other reasons. Only if the survivor is a child, they felt the perpetrator is at fault,”said Sneha Kupekar, project co-ordinator, Managing Sexuality.


The SNEHA team believes that these workshops will open communication channels for these children to talk about difficult issues of sexuality in safe environments and help them cope better with realities of life.