I just returned from Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, where 3,400 girls from rural villages have just completed the CorStone Girls First program. This wasn’t my first trip – I think I’ve been to India more than a half-dozen times at this point – and I expected to feel the way I often do when I return: as though I need to find a way to translate my experience into something that makes sense back here in the US.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that the issues girls face in India are at times unintelligible to those of us born and raised elsewhere. India is a place where many girls are valued so little that parents don’t even sell their daughters into marriages: they pay others to take their daughters off their hands in child marriages, and they try to pay as little as possible, as early as possible. Understandably, this place feels at times like another universe more than it feels like another country.
But this time, something amazing has happened: the girls have done my job for me. This time, I have been sent back here with a specific message to deliver, and I actually don’t have to translate it for an outside audience (well, maybe just a little bit — from Hindi to English).
This message is one that Girls First girls have been telling me and others since they have completed the program, and in honor of International Day of the Girl I’ll try to share it the way I’ve been told.
The message is this:
India’s future, for us girls and for our communities and families, is going to be bright. And we don’t mean the far-off future – we mean the close-in future. Maybe even within the next decade. And it is because of us that it will be so.
They tell me:
You just wait and see. Over the next 10 years in India, there will be no more child marriage; there will be no more sexual harassment and assault on girls and women; and there will be no more restrictions on how far girls and women can go in their education and careers.
But how will this happen? I often ask, because although I don’t want to be cynical, this is a far cry from their current reality, in which many of these girls are forced into marriage at the age of 14-16 and face significant harassment and abuse on a daily basis.
Ah, but they already know how the story will go, and they always tell me so:
In the next 10 years, Girls First girls will be in every helping profession you can imagine: they will be doctors, human rights lawyers and activists, police-women, police chiefs, social-workers, and teachers. There will be Girls First girls protecting each other and speaking out against abuse, and there will be boys and men they have recruited to stand alongside them and appreciate women and girls. Girls First girls will make choices jointly with their partners – if they even choose to have partners at all – regarding their marriages, the number of children they will have, and the type of career they will choose and when they will choose it. And then they will have daughters, and do everything in their power to make sure that those daughters can become anything that they want to become. Then the upward spiral will continue.
This last trip, I was lucky enough to meet one girl in particular who had stopped four child marriages (!) during the year-long Girls First program, including her own. I asked her what she thought was going to happen with herself and her group members now that they had finished the program.
She smiled, as if I was the one who was the little girl, and said,
“Well, yes, my group isn’t exactly my group anymore. But you see, I took the program in 8th grade, which is the last year of middle school. I just started 9th grade at a different school – a high school! My new school brings together students from many different middle schools. And I keep meeting girls I had never met before from other middle schools who also had Girls First at their schools! We talk about their groups and my groups, what they learned and what I learned, and we keep supporting each other in reaching our goals. I keep meeting more and more of them!”
Then she smiled again, this time as if to say: this is where the real fun starts.
And I had no doubt that this was true. If one girl can stop four child marriages, during a 1-year program with a group of 15 peers supporting her, just think of what 3,400 Girls First girls can do as they meet, grow, and support each other over the next 5, 10, or even 20 years of their lives. They really can make that bright future that they already have in their sights. Watch out India – I think Girls First girls have a plan for you.
October 11, 2014
Research and Program Manager