In the state of Rajasthan, in rural India, custom dictates that girls marry at a young age and begin raising children while boys assume much of the power and authority in a household and society.
Usha Choudhary, an activist who grew up in Rajasthan and decided she wanted to pursue education over marriage, is trying to change all of that.
Choudhary is the co-founder of Vikalp Sansthan, which she started with a fellow activist, Yogesh Vaishnav, to bring workshops and activities that focus on gender equality to villages around Rajasthan. She hopes to end prejudices that she sees as outdated and unfair to women and to create space for women to pursue education, careers, and independence.
One of the critical ways Choudhary and Vaishnav try to create that space is by offering classes on equality to boys and men, where they ask boys to consider whether their sisters should have rights, too.
“Girls and women empowerment is not in a corner, it is a whole society issue,” Choudhary told Women in the World during a recent visit to New York. “If we are empowered, our community and family will grow. So we decided to sensitize the community, including boys and men.”
The workshop leaders start by asking the boys how they celebrate their birthdays, and the boys typically respond that they go out to eat and drink with their friends to celebrate. But when the leaders ask when their sisters’ birth dates are, the boys cannot remember.
“In families, girls’ birthdays are not celebrated,” Choudhary said.
The leaders then ask a series of other questions designed to provoke the boys into considering the reality of their sisters’ lives.
“We ask them to consider who they want for a life partner, and they list things, and then we ask, what kind of life partner is your sister? A drop-out? An alcoholic? What is happening in your sister’s life? Is she being beaten? Is there violence? Then what is your responsibility?” they ask the students.
They drive home the point that while the boys have been brought up to think about their own achievements and future careers, they have a responsibility to ensure their sisters’ wellbeing as well.
“You are making only your life, which is good, but what about your sister’s life? They say I will make a gift for my sister for her birthday, and lots of boys insist on starting their sisters’ education and stopping violence,” Choudhary said.
When the boys begin thinking about why their sisters are treated differently, they begin to think about whether that is fair or just, she said.
Boys typically have more power in their families, and so when they speak up on behalf of their sisters, they have the ability to create more opportunities and equality, Vaishnav said.
The biggest challenge to Vikalp’s work, in fact, doesn’t come from any resistance on the boys’ part to giving up their power.
“Their parents feel it is useless work,” Vaishnav said. “They ask, why are you going to [the classes].”
The pressure on boys to focus on their school work, future careers, and future families is significant, he said. The boys in the workshop often try to take small progressive steps toward creating more gender equality, but face backlash from friends or their parents.
“Peer pressure and family,” he said. “They think it’s a girlish thing what the boys are doing.”
The workshops teach the young men how to explain to their communities what they’re doing, so they can spread the message and keep the momentum going after the classes move onto the next village. They have also tried to encourage mothers and fathers to sign up for adult classes, to encourage change to happen within entire families. They had trouble enrolling men, who often work six days a week, but have started attracting some adult male students to meetings on Sunday mornings.
“Our approach is not blaming anybody,” Choudhary said. “We are not blaming men and boys. If they are doing violence, that is not their fault, they’re growing up in a box and the community is teaching them do this. If girls are facing violence, it is not their fault. The community teaches them you live here, this is what you do.”
When family members are all learning the same principles, it increases the possibility that girls may be able to avoid early marriage, stay in school, and pursue careers, Choudhary said.
“The father, the mother, the brother. If they will support it, it will be less of a fight,” Choudhary said.
Vikalp also reaches out to caste leaders throughout Rajasthan, asking them to use their influence to encourage dialogue about gender equality issues.
“We are not blaming them and not giving any direction, just asking them to create an environment where they can have a dialogue,” he said.
Vikalp, which the pair founded in 2002, brings its workshops to more than a dozen villages on a rotating basis, where it trains a new set of leaders to continue the work in the absence of the founders.
“In Rajasthan, change is coming slow. Very few girls are pursuing their education, just their minimum basic education,” Choudhary said.
The girls’ education workshops focus on helping girls articulate their dreams for their future and expand their ideas of what they think is possible. They also try to get girls involved in sports and outdoor play, since that often ends for girls as they approach middle school, and to offer them lifelong support for any battles at home they might encounter, she said.
The cause is personal for Choudhary, who says she had to constantly fight to stay in school throughout her child. Her family arranged a marriage for her at the age of 13, but she struggled against it, and over a difficult period of two years, in which she said she suffered beatings and fighting, she was able to break the engagement. She continued with her education and worked at night to support herself to finish school.
“I am very lucky, but lots of girls have also dreamed,” she said.
The founders say they have worked with some 2,000 girls and 1,500 boys in their workshops.
“Through all of this, we will make an equality-based society in India for women and boys,” she said. “Through empowerment, we are supporting all these steps.”