I managed to escape the clutches of forced marriage and vowed to embolden a campaign against the practice in my village and nearby areas. My work became well known and in 2019, I won the Changemaker Award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a youth activist.
HINSLA, India — At nine years old, my parents began discussing my arranged marriage. I preferred to study and become a teacher. In our village, child marriage was common, but people had started to talk about human rights. I escaped, but not every child is that fortunate. Sadly, the age-old practice remains alive in many parts of India and around the world.
When a community forces a child to marry, those children lose their rights to health, education, and opportunity. I managed to escape the clutches of forced marriage and vowed to embolden a campaign against the practice in my village and nearby areas. My work became well known and in 2019, I won the Changemaker Award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a youth activist.
After plans to marry me off at nine years old failed, I started a journey, dedicating myself to helping other children. I always knew I was too young to get married. Despite many fights, I could not convince my parents at the time. They pushed forward with the plans.
Then, one day, activists affiliated with the documentary Children of Bal Ashram campaigned at my school. I felt a glint of hope inside myself and gained the courage to protest; to raise my voice against the decision of my family. Eventually, my parents relented and called off the marriage.
My activism took root and I dedicated myself to helping other children. In 2013, I joined the Bal Panchayat or Children’s Council in India and became president. [The Bal Panchayat serves as a council of about 500 children, 12-14 years old, encouraged to study, compete, meet, participate in workshops, and ultimately chase their big dreams. It is organized by an NGO known as the Socio Economic Development Trust or SEDT.]
Avoiding child marriage then becoming president of Bal Panchayat felt a like major victory. I began preventing other child marriages and helping children my age – completely committed to my village. They call me an activist. I do not want to be called anything; I simply want every child to have the right to health and education.
Now, with my Bachelor of Arts degree, I teach in a local school. I empower my students to stand up for their rights. I feel teaching remains less about books and more about the quality of the education I impart to them.
In my school and community, I see girls who ran away from their marriages now serving as counselors in villages to stop child marriage. I see them teaching the importance of school and study. When I work with parents, I explain the importance of education and the repercussions on children and society of early marriage.
When news comes to me about the arrangement of a child marriage in the region, I quickly reach out to the family, working to convince them to stop. If they disagree, I take the girl or boy with me and contact the police. I feel absolutely fearless when it comes to saving a life and I receive immense support from the community I built over the years. It feels thrilling to see girls, once on the run, now participating in stopping this practice. We also ensure children get enrolled in schools.
People often wonder if, as a child, people really took me seriously. I began this work at a very young age. I tell them, as a child, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, I was doing the right thing. When you say something with conviction, people hear you, no matter your age.
When I heard I won the Changemaker Award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, I did not know what it was, but I did want to go to New York City. I felt excited to fly on a plane. Growing up in a small village in Rajasthan, we never even saw a plane up close. If one flew by, we ran outside and looked up at the sky for as long as we could. Suddenly, I found myself sitting in New York City, thousands of miles away from my small village. It seemed unreal.
At the ceremony, I sat in my chair shivering. Wanting to represent my country well, I dressed in my best churidar kurta [a long, loose overshirt with pants underneath]. Hearing my name announced amidst all the dignitaries felt wonderful.
I became the first-ever Indian youth to win the Changemaker Award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation at the Goalkeepers Global Awards ceremony in New York. I even met President Barack Obama. It felt as if we had known each other for years.
It was the most memorable day of my life. I walked up to the stage with my speech in hand and told the audience I would fight all forms of child exploitation around the world. I shared my struggle and my journey from a small village in India to New York City.
The award changed so many things for me. I became important to the world. I never wanted to toot my own horn, but suddenly everyone wanted to talk to me. However, my greatest achievement is seeing children who may have been forced to marry, now studying in school. Even my family and friends in the village joined my campaign and proudly support my work.
Happiness comes over me when I see many hands joining me in this journey. We must bring reasonable change to my village and the other villages throughout India. I faced child marriage and escaped. Now tremendous change has taken place. Yet, we remain far from achieving an ideal state where children in villages in India can feel secure and grow up healthy.
Education helps our plight, but other challenges exist. Children need basic amenities to grow up in a safe and healthy environment. My campaign evolved to include healthcare facilities for children, and equal protection by the state.
I was a young girl, given the opportunity to raise my voice. I took that opportunity to make our villages a more child-friendly place. All girls deserve that opportunity. They deserve to be heard and to add their own contributions to the betterment of our society.
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