In Ranchi, India, 13-year-old Kusma hastens her steps as she walks by her neighbour’s house.
She is noticeably unnerved – her neighbour is a 70-year-old is a village elder who is well-respected and listened to by everyone in the community. Kusma keeps her head down, but she can’t help but notice her neighbor’s hand stretch in front of him. Four long, crooked fingers point toward the sky.
“Last year, he would show me his fingers and his thumb,” Kusma said. “Each finger indicates a year. He means that I have just four more years to study, and then I will have to get married.”
Kusma keeps moving, never breaking her stride until she reaches the Pirra Government School.
“He is an elder, so I don’t respond,” Kusma said. “But it will never happen – I will not get married. Instead, I will study and become a great doctor.”
Every day, Kusma steels herself to those around her. When questioned about her dream, she bites back with smart answers and probing questions – and sometimes, sharp retorts.
“I have a dream, and no one should stop me,” Kusma said. “Why shouldn’t I be able to become a doctor?”
As she speaks, however, Kusma’s firm resolve begins to dissipate.
“I don’t know,” Kusma said. “Maybe they will marry me before I become a doctor.”
Throughout the day, Kusma’s thoughts oscillate between the high of becoming a doctor and the low of getting married before she achieves her dream. As a result, Kusma’s imagination pendulums: she sees herself both as a confident young woman treating patients at the hospital, and a crushed young mother cooking food for her children and in-laws.
Kusma’s confidence in becoming a doctor is not misplaced, but neither are her fears of getting married. Jharkhand, Kusma’s home, continues to be a state with the third-highest prevalence of child marriage in the country. Though the State has made progress towards ending child marriage, close to 38 per cent of girls in Jharkhand are still married before they turn 18.
Working hard to achieve her dreams
Every morning, Kusma wakes up at 3:30 a.m. She studies while her parents, siblings and neighbors sleep – and when she’s done with that, she writes and paints. Most of her work centers around children, and their right to fulfill their dreams. Once Kusma arrives at school, she continues along the same vein, pushing those around her to recognize children’s rights.
“Child marriage is illegal,” said Kusma, addressing a crowd of children, adolescents and adults. “Even the chef who cooks at a marriage that weds a child will be prosecuted.”
Kusma has gained the confidence to speak at public forums and interact with public representatives, including government officials and high-level community leaders.
She repeats the topic in the evening when she leads a group of child reporters to talk to the village community. Kusma speaks directly to the fathers present in the meeting. Her knack of weaving a disparate set of ideas coupled with her flair arrests their attention. The words flow and so do her thoughts, and in unison.
But more importantly, a genuine commitment is felt/heard/sensed her tone. A little anger too.