One by one the teenage girls crouch down and take a seat, forming a circle on a cushioned floor draped over with a white sheet. As they take out their ‘Stop Child Brides’ branded notebooks out of their ‘We Can’ bags, there is a palatable sense of excitement in the room.
On January 1, 47 teenage girls from low-income rural villages in Rajasthan of India came together as part of a girl empowerment training session in Udaipur organised by the Vikalp Sansthan organization. On the program: Mary Kom, the biographical film that follows the life of an Indian boxer who became an Olympic bronze-medalist and a five-time world champion, a meeting with Udaipur’s all women patrol police officers, a visit to the She-Heroes café—run by acid attack survivors—as well as discussions about their rights and others about their role as future female youth activists.
When Usha Choudhary, the founder of the program, was 13, she was forced by her parents to stop her education and marry a man she had never met. In Rajasthan, where 60 percent of women are married before they turn 18, this was an all-too-common experience. Custom dictates that girls marry young, move in with their in-laws and assume household chores and childcare as boys take on power and authority inside the home—and, more broadly, society. Despite this, Usha refused to marry, studied hard and worked five jobs to support herself which eventually lead to her parents calling off the wedding.
This struggle inspired Usha to dedicate her life to ending child marriage in Rajasthan—and so, with a group of friends, she set up Vikalp Sansthan. Here, young girls are not treated as victims of an oppressive patriarchal system but rather as activists with an important responsibility—activists she expects a lot of hard work from.
This photo essay gives an intimate window into the session as the girls prepare to take their first brave steps into activism and get ready to swim against their families’ and societies’ expectations.
Usha understands the girls have little time to study due to household chores. However, she doesn’t take that as an excuse and asks the girls what activities they feel they could cut out in order to have more time to study. “Selfies”, says one girls, “religious ceremonies” calls out another, as laughter erupts. With the help of such exercises the girls learn how to better express themselves, confront gender inequalities and develop leadership skills.
During the session the girls also gain a better understanding of their own bodies, learn about ways to prevent violence, abuse and are made aware about older boys’ alarming tendency to blackmail and control young girls using mobile phones and what to do should it occur.
The young activists take turn to lead chants. “It has been drilled into them that their place is at home,”Choudhary says. “Chanting that it isn’t is a way of undoing that.”
Sitting with other girls from their village, the teenagers discuss and plan how often they will meet and how they are going to recruit others from their town to join their gender equality campaign.
Attending the training session together – the girls have bonded as a team and as friends. The girls stand confidently and proudly as they walk out of the training center.
The girls take the bus back to their villages. Since Vikalp Sansthan was founded, it has stopped 8,000 child marriages, helped with the education of 10,000 girls and dealt with over 2,000 cases of domestic violence.