Writer: Grieteke Meerman
Ksheeraja (19) is fortunate in that she doesn’t have parents who would prefer to marry off their daughter at a very young age. But that hasn’t detracted from this young Indian woman’s determination to combat child marriages and violence against women.
Until recently, university student Ksheeraja could literally hear her next-door neighbour dole out physical abuse to his young wife. “One day I knocked on his door and warned him that if he did it again I would report him. He just told me to mind my own business, so I immediately called the police.” She also reported the incident to her grandfather, who works in a special department with the police. “My grandfather also warned my neighbour and since then he hardly ever beats his wife anymore,” she says with considerable pride.
Abused and imprisoned
The violation of girls’ and women’s rights has infuriated Ksheeraja since she was young. She still vividly remembers how it affected her at the tender age of 12, when her aunt married a man who then abused her and locked her up at home. “Nobody dared to confront the man, not even her parents. It really made me so angry!” Despite the fact that divorce is very much frowned upon, Ksheeraja’s family finally “bought” her aunt out of the marriage. “She now lives with my grandfather and works as a teacher in a sewing school. In the meantime our family is also looking for a suitable husband for her, so she can be given a second chance at settling down.”
Ksheeraja learned to stand her ground after losing her father when she was just 15. “When he died everybody around us expected us to ask for money, but we didn’t. Alongside my schooling I immediately started work, not just to help my mother make ends meet but because I wanted to be independent.” She started giving private lessons to other children and more recently she has written for several university magazines. Furthermore, she is also acquiring experience as a software developer with an IT company.
Her mother supports Ksheeraja in everything she does, from her career choices to her dress code. If Ksheeraja feels like wearing a tight dress that exposes her shoulders, for example, her mother advises against it because this would be seen as provocative in India. Her mother also encouraged her to participate in the Girls Advocacy Alliance (GAA), a collaboration between Plan International Nederland, Terres des Hommes, Defence for Children − ECPAT and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As a so-called youth advocate she is in a growing network of girls who have been trained to improve the position of women through lobbying and activism.
The main objectives of the GAA are to reduce child marriages, child trafficking and violence against girls and young women. The solution is seen in preventing economic exclusion by improving girls’ access to education. “I see a role for myself in changing the perceptions and opinions of parents,” she insists. “The girls themselves can do very little because they are just expected to marry and stay with their husbands for the rest of their lives. All-too-often I’ve seen child marriages decline into domestic violence, and that really saddens me.”