Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18, marking the start of their lives as wives and mothers well before they are...
Girl Power at Its Best
Girl Power at Its Best
When I left for Lalwi village, in Bahraich, to meet the girls of Ekta adolescent group, little did I know that I was about to discover a gold mine of inspirational stories. The group is one of the many that are part of Join My Village’s Girls’ Leadership Program. Join My Village supports CARE programs in India and Malawi, thanks to the generosity of our partners, Merck and General Mills.
Barely into their teens, these girls are talented, enterprising and confident. One such girl is Lakshmi. As our meeting progressed, I was told that Lakshmi sang really well. It did not take a lot of cajoling to get Lakshmi to sing for us. Lakshmi was simply brilliant. Her powerful voice belied her tender age. She sang one song after another and each of them of different genre. An obvious query was who trained her?
“No one, I listen to the songs on radio and write down the lyrics. That’s it,” she says innocently. But this talent is not the only thing that makes Lakshmi special. Lakshmi travels with the village orchestra to nearby villages and town to perform at events. With the money she earns, she supports her family and her education. I found out the reason for her starting so young when I visited her home in the village a little later. Lakshmi lives with her parents, three sisters and one brother in a small one-room mud house. Her eldest sister was married young and lives in another village.
“My husband is an alcoholic and does nothing. I used to sing but gave up when responsibilities increased. It was then my daughters took over the responsibility to support their family and themselves. Though one is married, the other four are part of the village orchestra and tour with them,” says Lakshmi’s mother, Geeta Singh. “Given a choice I would have never sent my girls out to work. But we need to put bread on the table. Besides, they have God’s gift and I can’t let it go waste. Whatever little furniture and goods you see in this house was bought by my girls. I am very proud of my girls,” she adds.
As we were talking, Lakshmi’s elder sister Saroj wakes up and joins us. At 17, Saroj is the oldest sibling in the house. “Even though the girls traveled a lot with the orchestra, they made sure their studies did not suffer. From next month, Saroj will give up singing and will join a school in Nanpara (nearby town) as a teacher. Lakshmi and her younger sister Aarti have been saving too for higher studies. I have just got Lakshmi enrolled in a nearby private school. Lakshmi is very creative and is good in studies. I want all my children to be financially independent before they get married. I will not make the same mistake I made with my eldest daughter,” says a proud mother.
Just like Lakshmi, Nishu too earns a living. Though Nishu’s father is a Hindu priest and is earning well, she and her siblings have been earning to become financially independent. Just like her father, Nishu and her sisters know the religious texts by heart and even conduct ceremonies in the village. “She single-handedly conducted a wedding last night,” Shahnaz, the Join My Village leadership coordinator, tells me. The main ceremony in Hindu weddings is elaborate and lasts through the night. “I have opened a savings account in the village post office for my younger sister and myself, and I deposit all my earnings in that account,” says Nishu.
Another compelling story is that of Ekta Kishori Samooh’s mentor Rohini, whose father runs the village orchestra. The most chatty of the group, Rohini is also a great singer and dancer and wants to own a beauty salon some day. After joining the adolescent group, Rohini stopped two child marriages and delayed one in her own and nearby villages. “I learnt about the evils of child marriage in the group meetings. When I went to meet my uncle in another village, I found out that the village elders were planning to marry off a 12-year-old girl, whose father was a drunkard.”
“I went with my uncle to meet the village head and asked him why he was getting a child married. He said it was being done to secure her future, so I told him to put her in school for that and not get her married. By that time, others had gathered and my uncle called the girl’s father and scolded him for ignoring his daughter,” says Rohini. “The man said he wasn’t even aware that the villagers were getting his daughter married. He promised to make sure that she does not become a child bride. Finally, the village elders also caved in after I reasoned with them. Now when I go to my uncle’s place, the girl always comes to play with me. She is in class 7 in her village school at present,” says Rohini.
The one common thread that holds these girls together is the adolescent group. We were all in the same village and same school but hardly ever spoke to each other till the group meetings started. Now, all the girls are very close to each other. If Lakshmi is traveling, then I help out at her home,” says Rohini. “The boys and girls used to separate in school but, once the adolescent group meetings started, our hesitation faded and we could talk to anybody and everybody, including boys. Today we all sit and play together without any awkwardness,” says Seema, Rohini’s best friend.
“This group of girls is so strong that whenever they step out together, everyone takes notice. Their unity is their strength. Whether it is taking out a rally in favor of girl child or helping out in a function in one person’s house – the girls are always together,” Shahnaz - who has been working with the girls for more than a year.