At 15, Priyanka Bairwa’s parents began looking for her future husband. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The search ramped up.
“During the pandemic, every family in the village was eager to marry off their girls. You’d have to invite less people, there were fewer expenses,” says Priyanka in an interview with The Guardian. “But I refused to be caught in a child marriage. There was a major backlash – constant fights. I finally threatened to run away and, fearing I would do something drastic, my family called it off. My mother convinced them to let me study and I joined a college.”
Now 18, Priyanka has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic with a new goal and a new nonprofit: Rajasthan Rising. It comes at a critical time, with recent studies detailing a 17% increase in child marriages across India during the summer of 2020. One in three Rajasthan area girls marry as children. UNICEF estimates that annually, “at least 1.5 million girls under 18 get married in India, which makes it home to the largest number of child brides in the world – accounting for a third of the global total.”
Priyanka’s Rajasthan Rising aims to stop that trend and get girls back in school – for good. As she stated in an interview with The Guardian, “I launched the campaign because I knew thousands of other girls were facing similar problems, being pulled out of school and forced into early marriage. Education is supposed to be free until grade 8 [age 14] but never is. Schools impose ‘development’ fees. Scholarships promised to students from marginalised communities never arrive on time.”
Begun with just ten friends, Priyanka quickly grew her movement to over 1,200 girls by meeting with village elders and holding community meetings to make girls more aware of their rights. Members used their laptops and Internet access to connect with education and political leaders, meeting to discuss their goal of attaining free education for every girl in India through grade 12, along with a minimum annual scholarship of Rs 5,000 for school supplies and other needs. The group formalized the nonprofit in March, inspired by Priyanka’s work with Alwar Mewat Institute of Education and Development, in the town of Sapotara, where her mother worked as a cleaner.
Priyanka’s work is already grabbing the spotlight, notably through her monthly podcast, social media, and YouTube video:
According to The Guradian, Abhishek Bairwa, the village head of Salempur, is one of those supporting the campaign. “Their demands are important for every home in our village, which is among the most behind in the region. As girls become more aware of their rights, so do their families. I hope it becomes a national movement,” he stated.