Mahendra Sharma is director of an unusual charity: It's effectively a boarding school for child brides. It's called the Veerni Institute and it provides free room, board, health care and schooling to about 70 girls from villages surrounding the northern city of Jodhpur.
Child marriage is a long-standing practice in these villages, and about 30 of the students at Veerni are already married. They may be as young as 9 or 10 when they are married, but normally they aren't sent to live with their husbands until around age 15. So in theory they could be in school, but there aren't many high schools in the area.
The Veerni staff has made a deal with their parents: If you're willing to delay the delivery of your daughter to her in-laws, we'll bring her to the city and give her a free education. And that can make a tremendous difference in the girl's life once she moves in with her husband and his family.
This story is part of our #15Girls series, profiling teens around the world.
NPR profiled one of Veerni's students in this report. I spoke with Sharma to find out what it takes to run a school like this.
How can Veerni make a difference for these girls? What does giving them a high school education get them?
"There are quite a lot of opportunities," says Sharma. He notes that many of the girls at Veerni are from lower castes. To address a long history of discrimination against these castes, the Indian government sets aside a portion of government jobs for them. These include clerical positions that require only a high school education.
A girl with a high school diploma could also become a community health worker, says Sharma, or a policewoman, or a bank clerk if she has basic computer skills. And with just two to three years of additional training after high school, a woman can get an even better-paying job as a teacher or a nurse.
Sharma adds that even if a woman does not end up getting a job, her high school education will make a big difference in her quality of life. She'll be better able to keep her children healthy because she will have a more sophisticated understanding of nutrition and hygiene. And it's more likely she'll be respected within her family. Women who are educated "can raise their voice. They can participate in the decision-making of the family."
Child marriage has been illegal in India for years, yet so many parents still marry their daughters off in secret. Why?
Sharma says it comes down to the way girls are viewed in the villages: "There is this stigma around the girl child."
The expectation is that boys will be the ones to take care of their parents when they grow up. "So the boy child is treated very well. Parents do their level best to feed him and give him the best education they can. They stretch themselves to the limit."
By contrast, a girl is expected to get married, and from then on her responsibility will be to keep house for her in-laws. So until she's married she's considered a burden by her biological parents. They have to save up for her dowry, they have to feed and clothe her — all so that another family can benefit from her care. There's even an expression for raising a girl: watering somebody else's garden.
Parents also have to keep a daughter safe from scandal, adds Sharma. Any hint that she's had some dalliance with a boy hurts the family's prestige in the community and ruins her chances of a good match. Marrying her off quickly lessens that risk. "There is this sense that they are passing on responsibility for her to another family."
Then there's the role played by poverty. "So much money is involved in a wedding ceremony," notes Sharma. Custom dictates that a girl's parents must hold a big dinner at her wedding, for instance, and people can't afford to do this very often. So they generally combine events. If one daughter is getting married, the parents will arrange simultaneous weddings for all the other girls — even if some of them are toddlers. Similarly, if a relative dies, requiring an expensive funeral, you throw in a wedding ceremony. "People think, 'OK, this is the right time,' because in one expense they can cover the funeral dinner and the wedding ceremony."
How hard was it to persuade parents to educate their daughters?
There's been a lot of resistance. It helped that the Veerni Institute has built a reputation in the villages by its charity work — begun in the early 1990s by the group's founder, a Swiss national named Jacqueline de Chollet, providing access to healthcare and water and sanitation.
"We generated a lot of good faith in the villages," says Sharma.
Still, when it came to educating girls and changing the way they are treated, elders in the village were initially wary. In the early 2000s, when the staff began an effort to open literacy centers in the villages to teach girls basic skills, meetings with elders became heated. "On one occasion," recalls Sharma, "men threw rocks at our jeep. We had to drive away immediately."
Why were they so angry?
"They were worried," says Sharma. "They said with all this modern education the girls could become more modern and go and hang out and not follow their customs." The fear was that the girls would want to move away, remain single while dating men of their own choosing — essentially to abandon the village way of life.
How did you get them to come around?
Sharma says the institute took things slowly. At that village where people threw rocks at them, the staff returned a few days later — but this time, no mention was made of girls' education. Instead, they brought medicines for the villagers. Then they began teaching the girls skills the villagers found less threatening: things like sewing.
And they worked with elderly women in the village to convince the men that a literacy center wouldn't be so bad.
How did Veerni evolve into a boarding school?
Although the literacy centers for girls eventually won people's acceptance, the staff at Veerni wasn't thrilled with the results. Many of the students were failing India's national exams.
"We thought, we need to give them a better education, a better facility. Taking them out of these hamlets, to an urban area like Jodhpur, where we can send them to a private school will make a big difference."
Veerni made the shift in 2005, and today, Veerni essentially functions as a full-service boarding school — putting up the girls in its dorm and paying to send them to a nearby private school for regular lessons as well as extra tutoring.
But weren't parents concerned about allowing their daughters to live outside the village?
"Yes. That first year, we literally bused the parents to Jodhpur to show them the facilities that we would be providing the girls." Although Veerni had space for 50 girls, only 39 showed up.
Still, the situation improved quickly. Parents were favorably impressed with the change in their daughters after that first year. In the villages people speak a dialect. But after a year at Veerni, says Sharma, "the girls came back speaking proper Hindi in such a good manner."
They also had a newfound confidence. Word spread that the girls getting an education from Veerni might have prospects beyond just keeping house. Suddenly it seemed possible that they could get paying jobs — that they could contribute to a family's income.
What is Veerni's track record?
So far 99 Veerni students have graduated from high school. Of these, 69 have gone on to pursue training beyond high school, and about 12 of them have landed jobs.
Most remarkable, says Sharma, has been the transformation of the parents. Now families are clamoring to send their daughters to Veerni. The only limitation is Veerni's budget. Funded by a few family foundations in Switzerland and the United Kingdom, it's tiny by the standards of most charities — just $125,000 annually. "If I had the funds, I could easily fill 1,000 places at the school," says Sharma. "There's been just a huge mind change by the parents."
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