Writer: Grieteke Meerman
By making education more accessible to girls, Uma (20) sees it as her life’s ambition to reduce violence against girls and young women in India. Having already been through a lot already, she knows from personal experience that there is a strong link between the two. As a youth advocate Uma is ready to do what it takes and serve as an inspiration to other girls.
Uma’s life began quite eventfully. Immediately after she’d been born her mother was forced to flee with her from her father, because he had wanted a son, not a daughter. They found sanctuary, with Uma’s grandmother, who gave them a house and a piece of land from which they could live. “My mother went to work in the cotton fields and with the money she earned I was able to go to school,” she says.
Uma’s uncles and aunts from her mother’s side offered to arrange her marriage when she became old enough. Uma’s mother was very grateful to her family for this help because in India this is usually the responsibility of the man of the house. Her mother did, however, have to work to save up the dowry.
The age at which a girl is typically married off is when she first menstruates, and in Uma’s case this was when she was just 12. As it turned out, her mother’s gratitude towards her brothers and sisters was badly misplaced. “They stole the money my mother had saved for my dowry and they threw us out of the house we had been given by my grandmother. Then they killed my grandmother, their own mother!” she relates emotionally.
Attempt on their lives
This proved so traumatic for Uma that she became depressed. Driven by fear of her uncles and aunts, she and her mother appealed to the village council, a body to which villagers can turn if they have a problem. But it was to no avail and they ended up on the street. Eventually, the police intervened and they got their house back. Her aunts and uncles, however, were hell-bent on revenge and they tried to poison Uma and her mother by lacing their food with lamp oil. Fortunately, they failed.
After finding safety elsewhere, Uma’s mother was determined to allow Uma go to school for as long as possible. “I wasn’t allowed to work because my mother wanted me to be able to finish my education, which she felt was very important. She never had that opportunity herself and she reckoned that her lack of education was the root of the setbacks in her own life. Armed with the right qualifications, my mother wants me to be able to lead an independent life,” explains Uma. After opting for school subjects that included biology, physics and chemistry, Uma gravitated towards a commercial career. “It was tough, but I managed it.”
Blessing in disguise
The manner in which Uma stumbled upon her greatest passion − helping others − turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Just before doing her bachelor’s degree, her mother suffered a number of epileptic seizures and was unable to work for a year. To bring in some money, Uma took a year off from her education to be a social worker with an aid organisation. She was involved with children’s rights, school leavers, adult education and women’s issues. “I was able to prevent child marriages, convince early school leavers to go back to school and I gave lessons to adults during the evenings. That year spurred me on to help girls and women who have been through similar experiences to me.”
To help improve the position of girls and women, Uma now participates in the youth lobby group of the Girls Advocacy Alliance (GAA), a programme that is campaigning for equal rights and opportunities for girls and young women. It is being implemented by Plan International Nederland, Terre des Hommes, Defence for Children − ECPAT and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. By supporting local partner organisations and strengthening networks, the Alliance aims to make short shrift of child marriages, child trafficking and violence against girls and young women in 10 countries in Africa and Asia. The solution is seen to be, among other things, the prevention of economic exclusion by improving girls’ access to education.
The main protagonists in the GAA are the so-called youth advocates like Uma. Together, they form a growing network of young girls, and boys too, who are keen to bring about change. These youth advocates are given special training courses in which they learn how to get the message across to other girls and their parents, as well as religious leaders, local authorities and decision-makers.
Uma’s ultimate objective is to enable all girls in her district to have access to secondary education. This will enable each of them to lead an independent life and thus reduce the likelihood that they will be victims of violence. “And I think education will solve 90 per cent of the problem.”