At 17, Priyanka Bairwa has decided to refuse an arranged marriage for her. Not only that, but she made the decision to founding Rajasthan Rising to help thousands of other girls and demand free education for them.
Priyanka Bairwa was 15 years old when her family started looking for a husband for her. The pandemic accelerated the process, as schools were closed and work was drastically reduced. In October 2020, her parents had already arranged for her to marry a boy from their village, Ramathra, in Karauli district, Rajasthan.
But Bairwanow 18 years old, didn't want to know. "During the pandemic, every family in the village was eager to marry off their daughters. Since it was compulsory to invite fewer people, there were far fewer expenses," says Bairwa. "But I refused to be involved in a child marriage. There was a lot of confrontation in my family and constant fighting. In the end I even threatened to leave and, fearing that I might do something drastic, my family decided to call it off. My mother convinced them to let me study and I got into a college".
The pandemic has exposed millions of girls to a higher risk of being forced into marriage and therefore not being able to return to school. Childline India reported a 17% increase in child marriages in June and July last yearwhen the lockdown has been released.
In Rajasthan, one in three women between the ages of 22 and 24 got married before the age of 18.according to government figures.
I was aware that thousands of other girls were facing similar problems, having been withdrawn from school and forced into early marriages.
Bairwa - who is Dalit, the lowest caste in India - opposed the current situation. She founded a movement of young women and girls, Rajasthan Risingfocused on in the villages of Karaulifor claiming their right to free education, scholarships for higher education and freedom from child marriage, child labour and discrimination based on caste and gender.
"I launched this campaign because I knew that thousands of other girls were facing similar problems, being withdrawn from school and forced into early marriage. Education should be free up to the eighth grade (i.e. until the age of 14), but it never is. Schools charge 'development' fees. But the scholarships offered to students from marginalised communities never arrive on time."he says.
Bairwa started with ten of her friends. "We started visiting other villages and, with the help of local activists, we organised meetings, bringing girls together and informing them about their constitutional rights. The village elders were always wary, many would not let us in. But we kept coming back; in no time at all. we were already more than 100 girls in the group..
In the following months, the number rose to more than 1,200. and, in March this year, became a formal alliance, spreading further across the state. They learned how to use laptops and the internet, contacted education officials, political leaders and state ministers and organised meetings where they presented their primary objectiveor that every girl should receive free education up to the 12th grade17- to 18-year-olds, together with one of minimum grant of 5,000 rupees (£49) at the beginning of each school year.
The girls took Rajasthan Rising to the streets. They painted slogans on the walls demanding free education for girls and against child marriage. They wrote in the discrimination and sent an e-mail to the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot, who sent them a note of encouragement. "Many villagers called us crazy. But we had a clear goal, to reach out to vulnerable girls in all 33 districts of the state and demand long-term change," says Bairwa. The eldest of four children, she was drawn to the cause when she went to work with her mother, where she cleans at the offices of the non-profit, Alwar Mewat Institute of Education and Development, in Sapotara town. "I found my voice there, where I was treated as an equal. I listened to meetings on child marriage and girls' education. I learned how to create awareness and lead campaigns"he says.
Vineeta Meena, 20, joined Bairwa. "Our group intervened and stopped several child marriages. In my village, Gokalpur, my neighbour Saira Bano, 16, was getting married last year. We formed a group and kept going to his house to protest until his family promised to call it off," she says. Bano has now joined Rajasthan Rising. In March, some 120 young women left their homes to travel to Jaipur, accompanied by regional education activists, for the group's first state-level meeting.. For three days, they discussed how to break down gender barriers and bring about change.
"Our demands are quite basic, so we are confident that we will be heard. It is clear that if education is made completely free, we can prevent abandonment and, in turn, child marriage"., says Najiya Saleem, 19, a Rajasthan Rising leader from Alwar, whose sister got married early.
Abhishek Bairwa, the village head of Salempur, is one of those supporting the campaign. "Their demands are important for every household in our village, which is among the most backward in the region. When girls become more aware of their rights, so do their families. I hope it becomes a national movement"he says.
Karauli's head of education, Ganpat Lal Meena, invited the group to submit their suggestions to him, noting that this level of mobilisation marks a change in the way education and child marriage are viewed in the region. Vineeta Meena agrees: "Being part of this collective makes me feel that we are not less than anyone. We can do anything. I feel freer.
Original article here .
Translation by Angela Tacchini