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How One Indian School Is Working to End Child Marriage

It’s empowering girls and re-training parents.

Habitually wiping the moisture off her brow, Kunti Rawat deftly rings up a sale while waving in a string of shoppers to Didi’s Food in Lucknow, India, where she is second in command.

Her older sisters were child brides, but she holds a Master’s degree in business administration, an unlikely accomplishment for a village girl in a region of India notorious for selective abortions of girls and the use of gang rape to subjugate women. Of the world’s 720 million women married in childhood, a third live in India, where domestic abuse often stomps out academic aspiration.

But Rawat has no interest in fitting the mold. Tidily dressed in slim black jeans and a white top, her look is a sharp contrast to the women in Lucknow, who are dressed head to toe in colorful salwar kemeez.

“It’s because of Prerna,” Rawat said, referring to her high school. There, teachers taught her to challenge patriarchy, drawing straight from Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. At Prerna, girls perform above the national average, and almost all of them finish 12th grade. They also march every year in the capital of their state in a formation of flowing peach uniforms to demand an end to violence against women and child marriage.

With recent honor killings—the murder of one family member by another due to the belief that the victim brought shame on the family—in Pakistan and Afghanistan, people are starting to take note of Prerna and education that empowers girls as a powerful antidote to gender-based violence.

Research showing tremendous payback for investments made early on in a girl’s life is driving more funding. The U.S.announced $70 million in funding to support adolescent girls in Pakistan, and First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn is a multi-million dollar program for adolescent girls abroad.

We went to Prerna to sit in on what they call “critical dialogues,” conversations of the sort that don’t usually happen in a school, but should. These discussions often turn to the pressures that so many face—to drop out and marry—but the girls have other concerns as well. In one, after a 9th grader named Shailly told the group how she was harassed by the bus driver on the way to school, her classmates bolstered her courage. In another, the girls improvised a play about a maid trapped in an abusive household. Another 9th grade girl told us the dialogues help them “get ideas for how to deal with our problems.”

The founder of Prerna, Dr. Urvashi Sahni, started teaching in her backyard while a young mother and studying herself. She’s been teaching for 30 years, and it’s deeply personal for her. When Sahni was 24-years old, her cousin burned to death—it was either a suicide or a murder at the hands of her abusive husband and in-laws. The cousin’s 2-year-old son was in the house when she died.

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