“You are entering a dowry-free area,” a board greets you as you enter this town. Not a single dowry related case has been reported in Nilambur in many years. The town has shown the world how to contain social evils effectively.
For the first dowry-free and perhaps fully matriculate municipality of the country, social development is its engine of growth. The area has many tales of bravery when it comes to fighting social evils.
The mother-daughter duo
Grannies in their 30s are a common sight in Malappuram, a Muslim-dominated district in north Kerala.
The age difference between Sajidha and her mother Afsat, natives of Nilambur, is just 13 years and six months. Both were victims of child marriage and dowry. They don’t let anyone suffer in silence now.
When Sajidha heard that a 16-year-old girl was being discreetly married off in the neighbourhood, she rushed to the ‘pandal’ with fellow volunteers and blocked the marriage. They took an undertaking from the girl’s parents that the marriage would be solemnised after two years, only after the girl was 18.
“At least our next generation should be free from such crippling social evils,” Sajidha said. Such acts of standing up to social evils were not common in this sleepy Nilgiri municipality.
Nilambur’s anti-dowry campaign began in 2007 when the panchayat (later it was upgraded to a municipality) took a survey to find out the number of homeless in the area.
It was found that at least one-third people lost their homes to banks and money-sharks after they took loans to marry off their daughters. More than 1,000 girls (total population is 45,000) said they remained unmarried because they could not afford dowry required to get a groom.
“It really opened our eyes. In 2009, we took a pledge to make Nilambur a dowry-free village in a year,” said municipality chairman Aryadan Shoukath, the brain behind the movement.Young men and women took the challenge head on. There were public meetings in all villages, door-to-door campaigns, street plays and motivation classes.
‘Dump dowry’ associations were set up and informers were deployed to give a tip-off about such cases. Mass community marriages were conducted.
“I was moved by the plight of poor parents. So I took a decision not to accept any dowry,” said junior cine artist Riyaz Babu, who married a poor girl last year during a mass marriage.
‘Say No To Dowry’ soon became the catchword of the area.
“We fashioned it in a way that dowry is the biggest crime in one’s life and it did wonders,” said K Shabeer Ali, a volunteer.
In Nilambur, women self-help groups are powerful and they tap entrepreneurial qualities of poor women effectively. Moreover, 80% of the government revenue here is pumped back into the social sector.
“After achieving our target in our fight against dowry, we have started dealing with other social issues like domestic violence and marital desertions,” said T Saleena, municipal coordinator of Mahila Samakhya Society.The municipality has introduced another scheme "Surakshita,’ a rehabilitation programme for the dowry-affected. Besides fighting their cases, their wards’ education and healthcare would be sponsored under this programme.
‘Sameeksha’ is another such initiative bringing a better life to the inhabitants. After another survey, the municipality found that there were 2,519 non-matriculates in the area. Soon, they were trained to appear for the 10th-equivalnet examination and most of them made it.
“Once we achieved our target in dowry eradication we thought we should focus on containing other social monsters. It keeps us ticking well,” Shoukath added, summing up the extraordinary drive.