JAIPUR, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Married before her 18th birthday, Nirma Chaudhary could have ended up like thousands of other child brides in India’s desert state of Rajasthan - forced to quit school and consigned to a life as a wife and mother.
But the village girl’s conviction to study after marriage, support from her family, and a government initiative aimed at empowering women, transformed her from being another invisible child bride to one of Rajasthan’s first female firefighters.
“I used to see firemen on television and in the newspapers. Everyone would say ‘Girls can’t do these jobs’. So I thought I have to show that I can do this,” said Chaudhary, 24, wearing a uniform of khaki shirt and trousers, as she sat on duty at Jaipur Nagar Nigam fire station.
Battling age-old patriarchal attitudes in her village, Chaudhary is one of around 30 women recently recruited from Rajasthan’s towns and villages as part of an affirmative action policy to encourage women to join the fire service.
The policy reserves 33 percent of government jobs for women candidates and has helped increase the number of women in the police and administrative services but it was not implemented in the fire service until last year.
In a region where child marriages are widespread, the recruitment of these women is not only increasing their participation in a male-dominated profession, but also helping to dismantle a harmful practise which affects generations.
India has some of the highest rates of early marriage in the world. About 47 percent of women aged between 20 and 24 years said they were married before the age of 18, according to the latest National Family Health Survey.
Rajasthan - one of India’s premier tourist destinations where millions flock annually for its ancient fortresses and camel-back safaris - records higher than the national average, with 65.2 percent of women being married off as child brides.
At religious festivals such as “Akha Teej”, hundreds of girls as young as 10, dressed in traditional red saris and adorned in gold, are married off in dusty villages and small towns across this drought-prone region.
The custom, say gender experts, hampers efforts to improve the status of women, as it cuts across every part of a girl’s development and creates a vicious cycle of malnutrition, poor health and ignorance.
A child bride is more likely to drop out of school and have serious complications during pregnancy and childbirth. Her children are more likely to be underweight and will be lucky to survive beyond the age of five.
Chaudhary, who is from a village in the district of Sikar, 130 km (80 miles) from Jaipur, said she was luckier than most girls in her village.
Despite being married at 17, Chaudhary’s parents, husband and in-laws supported her wish to study further, take a degree in education, and become a firefighter after seeing an advert calling for women to join the state’s fire service.
“Although the women’s reservation policy was in place for sometime in Rajasthan, we didn’t start implementing it in the fire department until last year,” said Jaipur’s Chief Fire Officer Dinesh Verma.
“We thought that if women are in the army and stationed at the border and are ready to fight our enemies, then they can surely be encouraged to fight fires.”
After a six-month training course in firefighting, Chaudhary joined Jaipur Nagar Nigam fire station in March last year and has since tackled dozens of blazes from gas cylinder blasts in homes to factory fires.
Living in a small rented room in Jaipur with another female firefighter, Chaudhary visits her family once a week on her rest day when she takes a three-hour bus ride back to her village.
Like other new female recruits, Chaudhary says she was nervous about the job at first and worried about leaving her five-year-old son, but said she has now got used to it.
“Attitudes have changed in the village now. At first, neighbours didn’t like it and would talk badly about me doing men’s work,” she said, after conducting her daily inspection of equipment such as hoses, extinguishers and ropes in the station’s fire engines.
“But now they see that girls can study and achieve the same as men ... there are other girls that come to me to ask me about how they can also join the fire department.”
India’s economic liberalisation and rapid growth over the past two decades has helped expose people to more liberal views about women, especially through the media, satellite and cable television and the Internet.
More women than ever are stepping out of traditional roles. Female doctors, lawyers, police officers and bureaucrats are common, and well-dressed women in Western attire driving scooters or cars to work is now an everyday sight in cities.
Yet women’s workforce participation is only 22 percent, and though 79 percent of rural women work in agriculture, more than 90 percent of them are in the informal sector, with little social protection and land ownership, according to U.N. Women.
Gender rights experts say such affirmative action policies, in public and private sectors, need to be made national, empowering women, dispelling sexist attitudes which see girls as liabilities and dismantling customs like child marriage.
Ravi Verma, Asia director for the International Center for Research on Women, said such policies are helping to improve the status of women in India.
“Affirmative action is a solid step forward because those girls and women who move into the sphere of education and work and acquire additional skills challenge local patriarchy and can change attitudes,” he said.
Reporting by Nita Bhalla, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith