Meet Mahendra Sharma, she is a director of a charity, well an unusual charity at that. She is the director of a boarding school for child brides. The school is called Veerni Institute and it provides free board, room, healthcare, and schooling for approximately 70 children from the villages surrounding Jodhpur. Child marriage is a long-time practice in this part of the world; about 30 students attending Veerni are already married. They are usually nine or 10 when they get married, and they normally don’t live with their husbands until they are 15. Therefore, they could attend school, but sadly there are not many high schools in this area.
The staff at Veerni made a deal with each child’s parents: If you are willing to postpone the delivery of your child to her in-laws, we will bring her to Jodhpur and give her a free education. An education will make a huge difference in her life once she moves into her new life with her husband and his family.
NPR had the chance to sit down with Sharma and find out information on what it takes to manage a school such as this one and even gave a report on one of the school girls.
How does Veerni make a difference to the girls? What are the benefits of a high school education for them?
Sharma states there a lot of opportunities for the girls. Sharma goes on to explain that many of the girls that attend Veerni come from low caste.The Indian government was able to address the discrimination against the castes and was able to set aside a number of government jobs for them. These jobs include clerical type positions that require a high school education.
Why are so many parents still marrying their daughter off when child marriage is illegal in India?
Sharma states that it all comes down to how the girls are perceived in the villages. The boys have to live up to the expectations of taking care of their parents when they get older. So essentially, the boys are treated like royalty, so their parents feed them well and give them the best education.
While on the other hand, the girls are expected to get married and to keep up the house for their in-laws. Basically, until the girl is married, she is considered a burden by her parents. They have to clothe her and feed her, just so another family can benefit from her.
How hard is it to persuade parents to let you educate their daughters?
There was a lot of resistance. However, it helped the Veerni Institute build a great reputation in the villages by all their charity work, which began in the early 90s, explained Sharma.
When it came time to educate the girls and changing the way they are always treated, the elders in the communities were distrustful. Nevertheless, in the early 2000s, the staff began to open literacy centers in the villages to help teach the girls a few basic skills. The elders in the villages immediately became angry.
The elders were worried that with the girls getting an education that they will become modern and not follow their customs any longer. They were afraid that the girls would want to move away, stay single and date whoever they decided.
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