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India: the teenage girls standing up to patriarchy

The girls take the bus back to their villages. Since Vikalp Sansthan was founded, it has stopped 8,000 child marriages, helped with the education of 10,000 girls and dealt with over 2,000 cases of domestic violence.

This photo essay was originally published on the Ms. Magazine blog by Alice Rowsome 21 February 2017. 

One by one the teenage girls crouch down and take a seat, forming a circle on a cushioned floor draped over with a white sheet. As they take out their ‘Stop Child Brides’ branded notebooks out of their ‘We Can’ bags, there is a palatable sense of excitement in the room.

On January 1st, forty-seven teenage girls from low-income rural villages in Rajasthan, came together as part of a girl empowerment training session in Udaipur organised by the Vikalp Sansthan organisation. On the program: Mary Kom, the biographical film that follows the life of an Indian boxer who became an Olympic bronze-medalist and a five-time world champion, a meeting with Udaipur’s all women patrol police officers, a visit to the She-Heroes café, ran by acid attack survivors as well as discussions about their rights, and others about their role as future female youth activists.

When Usha Choudhary, the founder of the program, was 13 she was forced by her parents to stop her education and marry a man she had never met. In the state of Rajasthan, India, where 60 per cent of women are married before their 18th birthday, this was an all-too-common experience. Custom dictates girls to marry young, move to their in-laws and assume household chores and childcare, as boys take on power and authority inside the home and more broadly, society. Despite this, Usha refused to marry, studied hard and worked 5 jobs to support herself which eventually lead to her parents calling off the wedding.

This struggle inspired Usha to dedicate her life to ending child marriage in Rajasthan and so with a group of friends, she set up Vikalp Sansthan. Here the young girls are not treated as victims of an oppressive patriarchal system but rather as activists with an important responsibility, who, she expects a lot of hard-work from.

This photo essay gives an intimate window into the session as the girls prepare to take their first brave steps into activism and get ready to swim against their families’ and societies’ expectations.

Alice Rowsome is a French-British filmmaker and photojournalist who is currently reporting on the environmental impact of conflict and climate change on communities, specifically indigenous peoples and farmers.