The Covid-19 crisis put many people at risk. Whether that risk is related to mental or physical health, financial stability, or, for young girls in India, the risk of being forced into marriage and never obtaining a proper education.
According to Childline India, there was a 17 percent increase in child marriage in June and July last year when lockdown restrictions loosened. According to government data, in the Indian state of Rajasthan, a third of all women aged 22 to 24 were married before the age of 18.
Priyanka Bairwa could have been one of these girls. At the age of 15, her family started searching for a husband for her. The pandemic only accelerated this process because schools were closed and work was scarce. By October 2020, when Bairwa was just 17, her parents found a boy for her to marry from their village of Ramathra in the district of Karauli, Rajasthan.
However, the now 18-year-old Bairwa refused. “During the pandemic, every family in the village was eager to marry off their girls. You’d have to invite fewer people, there were fewer expenses,” she explains to The Guardian. “But I refused to be caught in a child marriage. There was a major backlash—constant fights. I finally threatened to run away and, fearing I would do something drastic, my family called it off. My mother convinced them to let me study and I joined a college.”
Bairwa is Dalit, which is considered the lowest caste in India, so her pursuit of education instead of a suitable husband defies the trend. But she didn’t stop there. Bairwa started Rajasthan Rising, a movement based in Karauli’s villages of young women and girls who are fighting for their right to free education, scholarships for higher education, and freedom from child marriage, child labor, and caste and gender discrimination.
“I launched the campaign because I knew thousands of other girls were facing similar problems, being pulled out of school and forced into early marriage. Education is supposed to be free until grade 8 [age 14] but never is. Schools impose ‘development’ fees. Scholarships promised to students from marginalized communities never arrive on time,” Bairwa says.
Rajasthan Rising started out with Bairwa and 10 of her friends. “We began to visit other villages and, with the help of local activists, held meetings, gathering more girls, and making them aware of their constitutional rights. Village elders were often wary, many did not allow us in. But we kept returning; soon we had 100 girls in the group.”
Their numbers grew to over a thousand over the following months, and by March of this year, became a formal alliance. They started online activism, taking to the internet to contact education officers, political leaders, and state ministers for meetings where they would present their goal: for every girl to receive a free education until grade 12 (age 17 to 18), plus a minimum scholarship of 5,000 Indian rupees (just over $65) at the start of every school year. They even emailed Rajasthan’s chief minister, Ashok Gehlot, who replied with a note of encouragement.
The group also took their message to the streets by painting slogans on walls that demanded free girls’ education and against child marriage. “Many villagers called us mad. But we had a clear goal, to reach vulnerable girls in all 33 districts of the state and demand long-term change,” declares Bairwa.
The group has already intervened in several child marriages and has attended their first state-level meeting in Jaipur this March, where they discussed breaking gender barriers and influencing lasting change.