Building Girl Leaders in India

Child Marriage , Education , Health

“How many of you graduated from high school?”

No one raised their hand. 10th grade? A few hands. 8th grade? A few more. While the number of hands in the air increased as we went lower, there was no level of schooling that all 30 girls had finished. In fact, many of them had never been to school at all.

We were in a remote village 3 hours away from Udaipur in India, speaking with girls in the UN program that Girl Up supports there. While the formal education in the room was evidently lacking, the positive energy in the room was anything but. The girls were dancing, singing, and laughing — and inviting us to join the fun.

Once we started talking, we all had a never-ending list of questions for each other. The girls asked us what our houses looked like, what clothes we wore and what food we ate. They asked what we studied and what we spent our time doing throughout the day. Similarly, we asked them about their daily lives, what made them happy, and what they dreamed of for their futures.

Since the majority of them were not in school, they spent their days managing housework, cooking, or working in fields or mines. Some of them told us about their dreams to become tailors and teachers. As I listened, I was blown away by the clear correlation between the number of years a girl is in school with her ability to articulate her dreams for the future.

I was blown away by the clear correlation between the number of years a girl is in school with her ability to articulate her dreams for the future.

I spoke to a girl named Geeta who has never been to school. She was taking care of her younger siblings by the time she was 4 years old, and now, at age 15, she spends her days working in the marble mines. When I asked her about her dreams, she looked at me with a confused expression. It was clear that no one had ever asked her what she wanted for her own future. Though she didn’t have an answer at first, she left our conversation confident that she wanted to start her own beauty salon.

While formal education was not an option for many girls in this village, I was so inspired by their determination to overcome the many hurdles in their lives to create their own futures.

They had all taken a stand for their own rights by joining the Girl Up-supported adolescent girls club in their village. Three girls from each village are trained to be peer educators; they learn about their rights and their mental and physical health. Then, they go back to their village to lead bi-monthly sessions with around 30 adolescent girls (10-19 years old). During these sessions, the girls have a safe space to sing, dance, and laugh, but also to talk about anything going on in their lives: their parents, their reproductive health, their marriages. They have created an incredible network of support and guidance that will only continue to grow.

I was blown away by the girls’ resilience, determination, and constant joy. We shared laughter and stories, and even though we are separated by oceans and languages, we quickly connected on the basis that we are all adolescent girls fighting for a better future.

This is a guest blog by Priyanka Jain. Priyanka is a 2011-12 Girl Up Teen Advisor and a senior at Stanford University. At Stanford, she is a 2015 Mayfield Fellow and President of Stanford Women in Business.