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I have in my head a lasting memory of the sound of 40 adolescent Indian girls singing “Hum hange kaamyaab” (“We shall overcome”). Though I didn’t know what the words meant until I asked, the tune was familiar – it was the same tune that became popular as a protest song during the US civil rights movement, one that every American knows. This memory was formed a few weeks ago when I traveled to Udaipur to attend a 2-day conference focusing on rural girls’ self-empowerment hosted by my NGO, Vikalp Sansthan.
Vikalp is a youth-based NGO that fights for equality and justice at the grassroots level. In Rajasthan, where domestic violence against women is common and the girl child is often disrespected, mistreated, and forgotten, Vikalp’s work focuses primarily on fighting gender violence and discrimination and increasing the capacity and well-being of young girls. In Hindi, the word Vikalp means “alternative” and as such, Vikalp aims to create an alternative to the existing male-dominated and often parochial social structure.
My everyday work is at Vikalp’s office in Jodhpur city, but most of Vikalp’s “real” work is completed in the field – in communities in both rural areas of western and southern Rajasthan and in slums of Jodhpur city. After working in Vikalp’s office for 3 weeks, I was excited to go to Udaipur and finally get a first-hand glimpse of Vikalp’s impact on these communities. This conference brought together adolescent girls and women’s self-empowerment groups that have been founded by Vikalp volunteers in four districts of Rajasthan – Jalor, Barmer, Jodhpur, and Udaipur. The girls have assigned their groups names like “Indira Gandhi”, “Sania Mirza” (a famous tennis player) and other prominent and strong Indian women. Though the groups meet in their own communities often, Vikalp brings all four districts together only once annually. For many of these girls, this was their first opportunity to share stories and meet peers from other communities in Rajasthan like their own.
The conference’s facilitator was Usha, a Vikalp employee who is also one of the most motivated and strongest women I have ever known. At the age of 13, Usha’s parents told her that she was to be married. Tragically, this tale is far too common in Rajasthan. According to UNICEF, 40% of the world’s child marriages occur in India. 47% of India’s women ages 20-24 were married before the legal age of 18, 56% of these being in rural areas. UNICEF also reports that Rajasthan accounts for 13.2% of married females in the age group of 10-14, the highest percentage of any state in India. Perhaps most astounding – the age group of 15-19 accounts for 19% of the total country’s fertility. Going further, the National Family Health Survey reports that more than 50% of girls in Rajasthan become mothers by the age of 19. District specific data reveals that as high as 85% of girls in Rajasthan are married before the legal age of 18.
Usha refused to become a part of these numbers. She told her parents that if they married her, she would commit suicide. As a result, her parents denied her education. This is also common. In Rajasthan, the value of a girl child is culturally much lower than that of a boy. As a result of cultural beliefs and traditions such as a dowry system, girl children are often neglected and denied education and proper healthcare and nutrition. Usha prevailed – not only did she earn funds to pay for her own schooling, but she received a Masters as well. She has since dedicated her life to support women and girl children in Rajasthan. She has personally prevented over 300 child marriages and that number continues to rise.
Watching Usha in action was nothing short of inspiring. She facilitated discussions among these 40 adolescent girls in a way that turned taboo discussions into casual chats. In the morning the girls were quiet and reserved. By the afternoon, girls were standing and sharing their individual stories with friends that only hours before were strangers. One girl who was about 16-years-old cried as she told her story. For years her father physically beat her mother. Instead of taking the abuse and remaining in this harmful environment, her mother convinced the family and extended family to stand behind her rather than support the husband. This girl’s mother decided to remove herself and all of her children from the home and move back in with her mother’s family. (In India, it is customary for the bride to move in with her husband’s family. In this case, the girl’s mother sent a message of female empowerment to her entire community by moving out of the in-law’s home.) Usha told me later that the girl’s tears weren’t so much a result of her sadness related to her mother’s physical abuse, but were more tears of relief at her ability to openly express her feelings and tell her story. Candidly discussing domestic violence in Rajasthan is socially proscribed; before joining this girl’s self-empowerment group this girl never would have thought of talking about her situation. However, after months of attending empowerment meetings and through Vikalp conferences such as this one, she has gained the strength to share her story and in turn, empower other girls to share theirs.
On the surface, the main goals of Vikalp’s work seem to be to end gender violence and inequality and to end child marriage. While this is true, I am learning that there is actually a more fundamental goal. This goal lies deeper and if achieved would inherently accomplish these “surface” goals – gaining respect for women and for the girl child. If girls and women are respected as they should be, child marriage would cease and gender inequality and violence would not exist. Vikalp’s “Aapani Dikari Ro Haq” (“Our Daughter’s Right”) Campaign, which is implemented by Vikalp in Rajasthan in coordination with UNICEF, has a slogan. It reads: “Every girl has the right to education, respect and love.” When Vikalp volunteers go into the field and hang posters and stickers in villages and slum communities, this is the message they are sending. By posting this slogan and going door-to-door advocating respect and love for the girl child, Vikalp volunteers are bringing about sustainable change at the grassroots level. If girl children are respected and loved they will not be denied education as Usha was. Furthermore, with respect and love, girls will be fed properly and receive adequate nutrition and healthcare. The young girls and women in Rajasthan are strong and their voices need to be heard. As the girls sang at the conference (as trite and as cliché as it may be), they will overcome. I am honored to work with Vikalp and I am finding that my days spent in the field – whether at a conference in Udaipur, in a slum in Jodhpur city, or in a rural village in western Rajasthan – have truly been my most inspiring and fulfilling work days during this internship.