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India: Letting girls believe in their dreams again. Usha’s story

To mark the launch of #MyLifeAt15, a new campaign calling on governments to implement the Global Goals target to end child marriage by 2030, we are interviewing Girls Not Brides members and activists about their life at 15 and how we can make the new target a reality.

Today, we speak to Usha Choudhary, an inspiring advocate for girls from Rajasthan, India. When she was 14, Usha confronted her parents about their decision to marry her off and force her out of school. Three decades later, Usha runs Vikalp Sansthan, an organisation she founded to address child marriage and empower girls in rural Rajasthan.

What did you aspire to do when you were 15?

When I was 15, I wanted to be a social activist. At that age, there were so many problems in my life and I did not want other girls to go through what I had gone through.

My parents wanted to me marry and drop out of school when I was 14. I had seen my mother endure so much in her own life as a result of her early marriage, so much violence. I saw that many girls in my community could not get an education. They just worked in the home. Coming from that situation and seeing other girls deprived, I couldn’t let it continue.

I said no to my parents and I decided that I wanted to be a social activist.

Usha Choudhary, Vikalp Sansthan, India

How did you become an activist for girls’ rights?

I saw education as my only way out. My parents pressured me to marry but I completed my education instead. I worked multiple jobs to pay the school fees and after graduating, I knew I could do it. I could support other girls to claim their rights, as I had. I started girls’ groups and organising meetings for girls’ education and empowerment and became a teacher.

Today I run Vikalp Sansthan, an organisation that works to improve the lives of girls in Rajasthan. We run workshops for girls, mobilise communities and have prevented many child marriages since we started.

What keeps girls from achieving their dreams?

The attitudes of parents and communities towards girls, education and marriage. Girls are seen as burdens. If a girl completes her education and has a good job, she will not bring money to the family home because she eventually moves to her husband’s family. Why bother with her education? Girls are told they should do household work, make the food, clean the house, and wash the clothes. They are not allowed to have dreams.

Girls are not allowed to have dreams.

The problem is that girls think about themselves in that way too. I tell the girls in our workshops to think of themselves as leaders. Every day you are the leader of your destiny. Tell yourself what you want to do, know what your dreams are, and one day you will achieve them. You will because I did. You too can stand up and raise your voice for your rights, I tell them every time. I love seeing their dreams get stronger day by day.

Why is ending child marriage important to you?

Child marriage destroys girls’ dreams. They lose their education and their opportunities. They cannot interact with girls their own age. They become housewives, mothers, and nothing else.

Child marriage subjects girls to domestic and sexual violence. It perpetuates poverty. I saw it happen to my mother and I don’t want to see it happen to any other girls.

What is the one thing that your government should do to implement the Global Goals target to end child marriage by 2030?

It’s more than one!

The government needs to invest in community programmes that create an enabling environment for girls who are viewed as burdens by their families, and often in their own eyes too. This perception is why child marriage happens. We need to empower girls by building their skills and confidence, and empower communities to view marriage and education for girls differently.

It also means breaking gender stereotypes and changing the representation of girls- we need to show that girls can do things and they can become whatever they want.

Government at all levels has a role to play in making child marriage unacceptable. No one should tolerate child marriage and we need a concerted response on the ground between the police, the district officials, the child marriage protection officers, etc., to make sure action is taken.