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Posted by Tina Kapoor

The new decade has brought new challenges as India further slipped to the 112th spot in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2020, which covered 153 economies. The report said, “Among the 153 countries studied, India is the only country where the economic gender gap is larger than the political gender gap.” Interestingly today every fifth person in India is an adolescent. We are experiencing a youth surge with the number of adolescents and young people at an all-time high. This means that these adolescents are the next generation of leaders, and workers. The largest global population of adolescent girls is at our doorsteps, nearly 10 percent of the country’s population. Yet the potential of adolescent girls to thrive is limited just because they are girls. 

1 in 3 of the world’s child brides lives in India. 102 million were married before the age of 15 of the country’s 223 million child brides according to ending child marriage report published by UNICEF. There is a corpus of literature that shows investing in adolescent girls to fulfill their right to gender equality, to be healthy, educated, safe and economically empowered, have the power to lift their families out of poverty and transform economies. 

Despite the grim reality for millions of adolescent girls, there is a solution. Girl Icons are inherent leaders who have the willingness and ability to fight social norms and gender biases. These young grassroots leaders are being identified from some of the most marginalized communities to foster social transformation and inclusive economic growth. Meet some of these extraordinary girls who are fighting all odds to transform their communities and building a movement of leaders in India. 

Simpi, 14

14-year old Simpi Soni resides in a rural village in Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh. Even today, one in every five girls In UP is a child bride. Simpi’s on a mission to protect girls from social evils like child marriage that violates girls’ rights to health, education, and opportunity. It exposes girls to violence throughout their lives and traps them in a cycle of poverty. So far Simpi had successfully stopped 4 child marriages in her community. She continues to be an exemplary grassroots leader who is using her voice, choice, and power to fight for what is rightfully theirs. 

The girls in my community are very supportive towards my work, I lead a collective of 20 girls in my community so that we can learn, share and grow together to unlock our potential and lead respectable lives”  

Khushboo, 21: “I want to tell our society that if they give freedom to girls, girls can achieve anything.”

A born activist, Khushboo’s outspoken nature has earned her quite the reputation as someone who is not afraid to speak up. Khushboo comes from a conservative community where girls are questioned on the simple choice to wear a pair of jeans or even when they look outside the window. She feels girls in her community are constantly discriminated against. Khushboo uses her experience of being forced out of school to going back to school to convince other children to return to school. Khushboo has enrolled 15 kids from her community back in school and continues to work towards putting more children back in school. 

Khushboo is a third-year student at Vidyant PG College in Lucknow pursuing Bachelor’s degree in Commerce. She aspires of getting her Masters in Social Work once she completes her Bachelor’s degree to continue working within her community and eradicate poverty through education. 

“It is vital for girls to be educated in order to stand up for themselves and for their rights. My dream project is to educate adolescent girls, who have never been to school, to a level where they can join a regular school in class 5.”

Roshni, 18: “I believe that knowledge is the only tool to empower everyone.” 

Determined 18-year-old girl, Roshni comes from a small village in Hardoi, a backward district in Uttar Pradesh. In her community, gendered attitudes and patriarchal power structures confine girls to the four walls of their homes, restricting their social mobility and limiting their control over all aspects of life, such as education, decision making, and relationships. However, Roshni is a rebel in her own way. She is vocal about her opinion on girls’ freedom of movement. 

“As girls, we are always restricted from doing what we want. We are held back from going to school; achieving our dreams; we are stopped from stepping out of our homes. However, people do not understand that they cannot contain us for long,” 

Also read: Five Historical Women Leaders From North East India

This courageous, young revolutionary, tutors 6 children in her village to manage her college fees. Despite financial constraints, Roshni is determined to achieve her dream to become a lawyer and advocate for the rights of the voiceless. She believes that for the nation to move forward and flourish, people need to step out of their patriarchal cocoon and support girls. 

“I want to be a role model for the girls in my community. I want to show them that if I am capable of achieving my dreams, so can they.”

Priya, 15

Despite her young age, Priya understands the practicality of the problems in her community, especially the lack of education in rural Hubbali Karnataka. She has taken the issues of her community and made it her mission to transform her community. Weekly, with a teacher from her school she spends several hours in the local slums educating the children to enroll them back in school. Due to her brave efforts, more than 15 children have returned to school and this is just the beginning Priya shares. 

With Priya’s initiative and determination, she believes every child will be back in school from her community.  She aspires to be a doctor in the future hoping to help as many people as she can. She also emphasizes the importance of educating girls and providing equal opportunities to them to do so.

“There are many problems in our society and I can’t solve all of them but I can certainly help in making some level of impact which I would like to do”. 

Conclusion

Gender equality and the empowerment of girls and young women is essential for contributing to effectively and sustainably eradicating poverty worldwide and foster social transformation and inclusive economic growth. Devoting attention to adolescents consolidates the gains that the country has made in early and middle childhood development since the 1990s. It is the most effective way of breaking the intergenerational transmission of poverty, taking advantage of our ‘demographic dividend’ and accelerating our efforts in meeting Sustainable Development Goals 2030. 

Also read: These Four Grassroots Women Leaders Travelled Across the Country for Land Rights

When we create the conditions for adolescent girls to fulfill their right to gender equality, to be healthy, educated, safe and economically empowered, they have the power to lift their families out of poverty and transform economies.Since gender inequality constitutes one of history’s most persistent and widespread forms of injustice, hence, eliminating it will call for one of history’s biggest movements for change. This is why it’s crucial and urgent to invest in a cadre of young women to build a movement of Leaders who dare to dream, create and live in a just and equitable world! 


Tina actively advocates and writes for women empowerment, gender equality, and education for children especially adolescent girls. She is currently working with the Milaan foundation as communication and partnerships lead forging collaborations and covering stories to amplify voices of grassroots girl leaders called Girl Icons who are challenging social norms and changing narratives in some of the most socially and economically backward communities of India. 

Milaan Foundation is a non-profit, human rights-based organization, which envisions an inclusive and equal world, where every girl has the knowledge, skills, and social environment to pursue her dreams and explore her full potential. Milaan’s flagship program the Girl Icon program is a girl-led leadership development program that invests in collectivizing girls at the grassroots, delivering comprehensive life-skills based education and instigating collective social actions on issues that affect adolescent girls. To date, the program has a network of 378 girl icons, who in turn have impacted more than 10,000 adolescent girls in 62 districts across Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, and Assam. Milaan’s mission is to empower 10 million girls by 2030 so that they can lead the movement towards a gender-equal India. You can find them on Facebook, Twitter,  LinkedIn, Instagram, Youtube and Website.

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