“I believe all women have it in them to be like Jhansi ki Rani and I want to help them realize that,” says Pooja Kumari, determination evident on her face. Like the queen whose name she evokes, Pooja is a fighter.

A child bride, Jhansi ki Rani was widowed shortly after marriage.

Undeterred by the conventions of the time which did not allow women to step out of their homes, the young queen dared to take on the British and died fighting in the 1857 war of Independence. Even today poems and songs celebrating her valour are popular in small town north India.

Pooja who comes from Bihar’s Gaya district is 17 years old. She is single, rare in a state which along with Rajasthan reports the highest number of child marriages in India. Most girls get married between 12-13 years and become mothers by 15.

“My grandmother wanted me to get married when I turned twelve,” says Pooja. “I refused. I told her that if I am not considered mature enough to vote until I am 18, I am not mature enough to marry either. My friends who went along with their parents’ plans tell me their lives ended the day they got married.”

Youth Leadership Council, Dhanawra

Pooja is now taking the battle out of her home, into the community.  She is a youth leader with the Jagriti Trust. Jagriti in Sanskrit means ‘awakening’ and that is what this NGO is attempting to do – help and motivate boys and girls to get involved in community issues and become agents of change.

Rema Nanda

“In my experience adolescents are looking for inputs and guidance but there is no one to show them the way,” says Dr. Rema Nanda, Founder of Jagriti Trust. “We want to equip them with the tools to fight back, to mobilize and become community leaders.” “A lot of these kids want to become doctors and engineers but they don’t even know that they need to take math and science at the senior level in school to take a shot at the exams,” she goes on to say. The NGO helps them with information and counselling about their life goals as well.

Youth Leadership Councils have been formed across three districts of Bihar – Vaishali, Patna and Gaya, headed by highly motivated youngsters. They in turn have teams under them, some with members as young as 13 years. The teams are made aware about various government schemes and rights guaranteed to them to foster a sense of empowerment.  The council then goes into the community, using different platforms to educate people about issues like sanitation, ending child marriage and even spacing children.

“There was huge opposition from the village elders and even local authorities at first,” remembers Premnath, leader of the Ismailpur council in Vaishali district. 19-year-old Premnath is a college student and he too came under pressure to marry early.


What is remarkable is the large turnout of girls at these awareness programs. Remember, this is a state which was once seen as India’s darkest. Bihar would hit the headlines regularly for kidnappings and caste killings. Women would rarely venture out of their homes and their attendance in schools was abysmal. But that is gradually changing thanks to the many initiatives started by the chief minister Nitish Kumar. Law and order is improving and so has girls’ enrolment in schools thanks to the Kumar government’s ‘Cycle Initiative’ under which girls from Class 9 and 10 are given free cycles or Rs 2000 to buy one. Now parents are no longer reluctant to send their girls to school.

So strong is the response that some villages even have all-women councils. Their desire to make a change is very evident, very heartening.

“If girls are not visible in public spaces it reinforces the idea that they should be cloistered,” says Dr Nanda. “It reinforces the whole notion of honour protection and physical vulnerability.  So it’s important they be seen and heard.”

Neetu and Rekha

“I have told my parents’ that I will not marry until I am 23,” says 20-year-old Neetu Kumari, a youth leader from Paraiya village. “I want to do a teachers’ training program and support myself.”

Her friend Rekha pipes in. “A lot of people in my village ask what is the big difference I am going to make. I tell them this is something I am going to be a part of even after I get married and move out to another village. I will not let this spirit die out because change starts from within.”

(Shai Venkatraman is a freelance journalist and teacher, associated with the media industry for over 17 years now. She has worked in NDTV  and has reported extensively on varied matters from politics, religion and breaking news events to natural disasters. She has a keen interest in issues related to public health and human rights)

Comments (2)

  • Thanks for sharing this information with us!!! Its really appreciable!!!

  • Guest (Suparna Gangal)

    Hats off to all these young girls. Staying firm for what is right, spreading the message about what is right even though it might mean defying tradition is a rare virtue. All I can say is respect to these girls...Bravo!!! And thank you Shai for giving us a true story that's inspirational...

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