Photojournalist Alice Rowsome Documents Indian Activists Helping Girls Escape Child Marriage

“I will become a teacher,” 1 January 2017. Udaipur, India.

 

Not too long ago we published a story about an Indian woman who escaped child marriage as a girl, and how she spends her adult life helping other young women do the same. Usha Choudhary not only gives the girls tools to access education and learn skills that can help them earn a living in the future, she also engages their parents to understand the dangers of child marriage.

In the state of Rajasthan where Usha lives and works, child marriage is an all-too-common custom, where 60% of women are married before their 18th birthday. 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.

The organization she runs is called Vikalp Sansthan, where teenage girls from low-income rural villages across Rajasthan come to participate in female empowerment training sessions and learn from a range of speakers and activists. Here the young girls are not treated as victims of an oppressive patriarchal system, but rather as budding activists with an important responsibility, who Usha expects a lot of hard-work from.

British multimedia journalist and filmmaker Alice Rowsome, whose work has taken her across the world to places like Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Central and South America, recently attended one of the Vikalp Sansthan workshops and documented the experience in a powerful photo essay. We had an opportunity to share some of her images and speak exclusively with Alice about her mission behind the series, and how it impacted her work as a journalist.

The girls take a seat in Bedla’s Astha Training Center. 1 January 2017. Udaipur, India.

 

What was the inspiration behind this series and how did you come up with the idea?

I heard about Vikalp Sansthan and Usha’s story online on News Deeply and was really touched and impressed by her courage and will to change things.

The organization’s approach was not about treating the girls as victims of an oppressive patriarchal system. It wasn’t about making them feel sorry for themselves. It was about making sure they felt empowered and able to overcome whatever comes their way.

The day I went to visit the girls, coincided with the day of the mass sexual attack in Bengalore, the one that happened on New Year’s Eve. The attack was devastating and made worse by the fact politicians started blaming women’s clothing for the attack. I wanted to document something positive. These girls weren’t deflated by these events, but instead fueled with the desire to change things for the better.

During the session, the girls sit in a circle exchanging ideas, opinions, and sharing intimate stories. 1 January 2017. Udaipur, India.

 

What response have you gotten from people outside the media who have seen the images and learned about the issues you have included?

People have been really receptive to the story. I think that’s because it documents a positive story of empowerment.

The world feels on fire at the moment with so many horrible things happening all over, it’s become rare to read uplifting news.

Reading about an issue through a positive (and very successful) project makes it less devastating. There is a problem but also solutions. Change feels more achievable.

I also think more and more young people I speak to feel very disillusioned with institutions and feel that top-down approaches to bring about change are limited and I guess this project underlines the potential of grassroots movements.

Usha understands the girls have little time to study due to household chores. However, she doesn’t take that as an excuse and asks the girls what activities they feel they could cut out in order to have more time to study. “Selfies”, says one girls, “religious ceremonies” calls out another, as laughter erupts. With the help of such exercises the girls learn how to better express themselves, confront gender inequalities and develop leadership skills. 1 January 2017. Udaipur, India.

 

“You can’t tell me this is not possible. If I managed, you can too,” Usha reinforces as she goes over what they discussed during the session. 1 January 2017. Udaipur, India.

 

Why is it important for you to use your work to raise awareness for important issues like child marriage?

Each year, 15 million girls get married before the age of 18. That’s 28 girls per minute. Often isolated from their family and friends with their freedoms curtailed, the girls are often deprived of education and safety. They are also at greater risk of experiencing complications in pregnancy and childbirth, at higher risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and suffering domestic violence and abuse.

It’s a huge problem and a real violation of human rights and so when I found out about Vikalp Sansthan, I wanted to support their work by raising awareness of it, in the hope that others across the world would also be inspired by their approach.

During the session the girls also gain a better understanding of their own bodies, learn about ways to prevent violence, abuse and are made aware about older boys’ alarming tendency to blackmail and control young girls using mobile phones and what to do should it occur. 1 January 2017. Udaipur, India.

 

The young activists take turn to lead chants.“It has been drilled into them that their place is at home. Chanting that it isn’t, is a way of undoing that,” Usha Choudhary. 1 January 2017. Udaipur, India.

 

Sitting with other girls from their village, the teenagers discuss and plan how often they will meet and how they are going to recruit others from their town to join their gender equality campaign. 1 January 2017. Udaipur, India.

 

What surprised you the most about the young girls in India that you met?

They had signed up for this course themselves, sometimes even bringing their younger sisters with them, having found out about the course through older but still young activists. I thought this was great.

The girls were so confident and had a great sense of humor, often cracking funny (but relevant) jokes in response to some of the issues they were facing.

The girls were beaming and full of confidence as they went back home. I liked that because they weren’t going back home, upset by been made aware of the full reality of the situation they face and all the effort they were going to have to put in to escape their fate, but excited to put Usha’s advice in practice.

“I will be a police officer.” January 2017. Udaipur, India.

 

Attending the training session together – the girls have bonded as a team and as friends. 1 January 2017. Udaipur, India.

 

The girls stand confidently and proudly as they walk out of the training center. 1 January 2017. Udaipur, India.

 

How has the Vikalp Sansthan organization been able to give these young girls an opportunity in life which didn’t previously exist?

Vikalp Sansthan runs many different amazing programs. They run lots of sports and self-defense programs, they have public awareness campaigns, they advocate to local government and community leads on issues facing women, they encourage self-respect and self-worth in women and young girls but also sensitize men to the experiences and issues facing women. By doing so, they create a holistic, safe, healthy and empowering environment for these young girls to grow in.

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You can see more of Alice Rowsome’s multimedia journalism by visiting her website. Learn more about the work of Vikalp Sansthan and how you can support their advocacy.

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. 1 January 2017. Udaipur, India.

 

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