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India’s Golden Chance

Girls walking to school through the town center in rural Bihar, 2013. (All photographs by Allison Joyce/Redux)

PUBLISHED: January 6, 2014
Behind the headlines of sexual violence is a culture where girls are forced into marriage and early motherhood. How will the next generation break the cycle?

In 2006, when she was twenty-​three, Pinki Kumari realized that she was utterly bored with her job preparing accounts in a CPA’s office. A friend had told her about a group called Pathfinder International, a global organization that educates the poor in more than twenty countries on matters of reproductive health, and that it was hiring for some kind of social-​service job. So she applied, with no idea of what to expect. One of her interviewers was a charismatic and lanky project manager named Binod Singh. He had talked with dozens of women like Pinki, and after a while he began to push the boundaries of the interview, “to really test them.” During their interview, Singh handed her one of the organization’s educational flipbooks containing photographs of human genitalia, so as to gauge her comfort with the taboo matters of anatomy.

Pinki didn’t flinch. As a native of India’s northern state of Bihar, Pinki had spent part of her life in a village, part in a city. Her mother was a nurse who’d brought home all sorts of health-​related literature. Still, Pinki had never seen such graphic images. But she wanted the job, so she imagined herself as a doctor. “I thought, ‘If I had to do an operation, it would be this same body that would be there, so I have no issue with this.’” With nonchalant coolness, she looked at Singh and said, “This is just a subject for me.” He pressed her. “Boys will ask you questions and the community will abuse you,” he said. “How will you handle it?” She was unflappable, tapping into her experience in local theater to gin up some confidence. “In my school time, I had wanted to be a doctor,” she said, “so I thought, I am a social doctor who is going to educate people on health issues.” She told her interviewers as much.

A week later, Singh hired her, and after a month of training she began traveling from village to village to teach adolescents about the most fundamental elements of reproductive and sexual health—​basic biology, what menstruation is, how to use birth control—​as well as why delaying marriage and staying in school were in their best interests. It was information both elementary and revolutionary, the words as jarring as an indecent photograph.

Pinki told me this story of how she and Singh met as the three of us rode in a white SUV, careening from Bihar’s capital of Patna to the town of Bodh Gaya, one of the seventeen subdistricts where she and her colleagues have worked with more than 100,000 unmarried adolescents. Sitting next to me in the backseat, Pinki was quietly composed in a purple salwar. “In eleven years, I must have interviewed two thousand people!” Singh said, turning to face us from the front seat. “I tell you, I was really getting bored. But right away with Pinki I saw a spark and honesty.”

We were traveling south, away from the latitudinal course of the Ganges River, which bisects Bihar through its midsection. It was fall, and villagers were bent over golden stalks in paddies punctuated by the slim, white commas of egrets, a pause between rows of rice stubble. Lotus flowers blossomed in roadside ditches, vestiges of Bihar’s Buddhist roots. Kids scavenged for recyclables in mounds of makeshift landfills, and kiln chimneys were perched on pillars of red earth, the rest of the soil around them dug out and transformed into piles of bricks. The smoggy haze that hangs in the air over much of the Indo-​Gangetic Plain muted the landscape. Color came in quick splashes—​a brightly painted truck, women wrapped in radiant saris. 

I had come to Bihar to find out what it means to be a girl turning into a woman in today’s India. After a lifetime of visiting this country from America to see my father’s family in the south, where women and men are seen on the streets in equal measure, I felt the weight of purdah—​the practice of keeping women out of view, based on the Persian word for veil or curtain—​here in the vast plains of the north. In Bihar, especially in Patna, men dominate the public domain. I glimpsed women and girls in small doses—​in jeans and T-​shirts socializing in coffee shops near the university, walking rooftops for exercise, appraising fabric in corner shops. For women, even if their own homes cannot guarantee safety, stepping outside is seen as inviting that much more risk.

This lack of security is just one symptom of a deeper illness. Bihar has a notorious reputation for violence. It is a beleaguered state, trailing at the bottom of nearly every socioeconomic ranking there is. Economic and infrastructural improvements have proliferated since a change in government in 2005, but have yet to lead to noticeable upward mobility for most of the population. Poverty has ticked down a mere 1 percent in the five years since the boom began, and because of population growth, the absolute number of poor people has increased by 4 million. 

And it is a dismal place to be a woman. It has one of the nation’s highest fertility rates and some of the nation’s youngest brides. For every 100,000 mothers who give birth, 261 die—​more than ten times the US figure. Though it is an illegal act, nearly 70 percent of Bihari girls are married before their eighteenth birthday, and well over half of newlyweds have their first child by nineteen. The average woman in Bihar bears 3.7 children over the course of her lifetime. Of those, nearly 5 percent die within the first year. 

Bihar’s statistics are bad, but the rest of India doesn’t fare much better. In June 2012, a Thomson Reuters Foundation report found that of all the G20 countries, India was rated the worst for women, based on threats of physical and sexual violence, quality of health services, level of political expression, and access to property and land rights. This fact was gruesomely underscored when, in mid-​December of that same year, a twenty-​three-​year-​old female physiotherapy student and her boyfriend were gang-​raped after boarding a private New Delhi bus they thought was offering them a ride home. Both victims were dumped at an underpass. The man recovered from his beating. The young woman, whose insides had been mutilated as she was raped with a metal bar, died thirteen days later.

In the US, the New Delhi rape made major headlines, portraying a misogynistic and savage India that clashed with its rising-​star status. Enraged protesters took to the streets, demanding punishment and reform. But traveling around the country for months, even before the news from New Delhi, through small towns and big cities, I read about sexual violence every single morning in the local papers, without fail. Gang rapes as common as individual ones. Victims as young as three years old. Police as collaborators. Victims blamed. Violations every day. As news of the protests began to thread together with news of attacks, the stories seemed to form their own continuous narrative. Women and girls assaulted on their way home from visiting relatives, or lured by a stranger posing as a family friend, or attacked when they traveled to a field for relief because they had no toilet. There were two five-​year-​olds in separate occurrences, one who died. A seventeen-​year-​old Punjabi village girl committed suicide after police suggested two options: accept a financial settlement or marry one of her rapists. A young photojournalist and her male colleague were attacked at an old mill site in Mumbai, where serial rapists would call each other on their cell phones whenever a “beautiful deer” had been spotted. An earlier victim who had been raped in the same Mumbai site had been subjected to a “two-​finger” hymen test by doctors to determine whether to believe her. The chief minister of West Bengal—​a woman—​dismissed a highly publicized rape case in Kolkata as a sajano ghatana, a fabricated incident. And then there are the vast number of unreported rapes that happen within homes, by those closest to the victims. 

Pinki Kumari (left) and Binod Singh (right) in Patna, 2013.

By March 2013, the Indian Parliament had passed a law that expanded the definition of rape and criminalized sexual harassment, voyeurism, and stalking, though marital rape is still not a criminal offense. Even with the new law, there are grave concerns about enforcement, especially when victims find the police as threatening as their attackers. Add to this India’s notoriously torpid judicial system, in which rape cases can take five to ten years to reach judgment. The intense public scrutiny of the New Delhi incident arguably led to swift convictions—​four of the rapists were sentenced to death less than a year after the attack—​but if and when the sentences will be carried out remains unclear, while thousands of similar, low-​profile cases don’t receive such focused attention. 

In this climate, girls and women in India are fighting for rights often taken for granted in the West—​the right to an education and the right to be physically safe, whether at home or in public. They are striving for a new way of life and asking, sometimes demanding, rights that have only been afforded their male counterparts since before The Ramayana was written. Many men are joining their ranks, but many others are putting up a fierce resistance. I came to Bihar to find out if power is a finite thing. Can one person gain it only at the expense of another’s loss?

“Girls are not waiting for any opportunity. They are just grabbing the opportunity from the male,” Pinki told me as we approached Bodh Gaya. “This time is going to be tough for the male. They are going to have to fight for their identity in ten years, when you find the girls are doing their jobs.” She paused, gazing out the window at the fields. Her experience has exposed her to a generation of girls who are ready to demand their rights to both knowledge and safety, girls who have gone to extreme lengths to find their own place in the world. “They come from a deprived community,” Pinki said of the girls she worked with, “where they never talk about themselves, where they never think about themselves, their life, what they have to do. Once they have a platform, they start thinking, they start to dream. Yes, I can be a leader. Yes, I can speak for myself.”

A few days before I traveled to Bodh Gaya, I visited Rafay Eajaz Hussain, the state program manager for the Population Foundation of India, at his office in Patna. I’d spent the better part of two weeks sitting in offices like his, talking to bureaucrats and NGO staffers who all shared the same staggering statistics, the same litany of acronyms for inefficient government health agencies and aspirational nonprofit programs. The level of dysfunction was so overwhelming that when one NGO staffer had told me that the “unmet need” for contraception—​people who want to use birth control but don’t have access to it for a variety of reasons—​had risen from 37 to 39 percent, it seemed like good news, since at least it showed that interest was on the rise. 

Hussain, a towering figure in a khaki, short-​sleeved button-​down, offered mango juice and chips as we continued the theme I’d heard elsewhere. “Until 2009, we were able to only utilize 28 percent of the funds we were receiving in the state,” he said. “By 2011, we reached 85 percent.” The increase was impressive, but with so much work to do, how was it possible to still operate under budget? There was abundant federal money available, Hussain insisted—​to hire nurses, health workers, and teachers—​but there weren’t enough educated applicants in Bihar. And no one from other parts of India was willing to move there.

I tried a different tack, to pull back from the quagmire of numbers. What, I asked, would he do if he could do only one thing to address population growth?

“Delay the age of marriage, delay the age at first birth, and the spacing between the first and second child,” he began. “Make quality health services accessible to all through the government system and address the adverse sex ratio. Besides that, education, livelihood, social development, class-​ and caste-​based equity. Bridge the huge gaps in health resources. It will take some time, but one should choose the right path. One needs to improve the system and also address the social and systemic ills like the dowry system and casteism. Women should be respected. Women’s empowerment is a major issue. If you give the power to women, they will decide to limit the family, because they have to bear the burden of raising the child. And then as part of all these initiatives, you have to make them all accessible.”

I heard myself laugh, though I wanted to weep. Was he done? I waited. 

“We might not be able to see the change in our lifetime,” he said finally, “but we should try to bring the processes on the right path. Someone else will take it forward.” 

He shrugged a bit. “The line,” he said, “is never straight.”

Beneath the troubles of modern-​day Bihar lies a glorious past, replete with golden eras of religious, political, and intellectual influence. It is one of the oldest inhabited areas on Earth, where, in the sixth century b.c.e., Siddhartha Gautama—​a prince who sought release from the suffering 0f the world—​found enlightenment under the tendril-​tipped leaves of a bodhi tree and thus became known as the Buddha. The religion that grew from his teachings is nearly extinct within India, but the original sites where the story began remain, and Buddhists travel from around the world to witness them. Using the car horn to cut a path through the congested center of Bodh Gaya, in Bihar’s southern Gaya district, which is a few hours south of Patna, we passed through swarms of Buddhist pilgrims succumbing to security and metal detectors before being allowed to sit under a descendant of the Buddha’s sacred tree. 

We drifted further from the fracas until the pavement ended at the Sujata Kuti stupa, one of the less glamorous Buddhist pilgrimage sites on the outskirts of town. Tucked behind the stupa, down a dirt road bordered by fields of ripening cabbage and eggplant, was the village of Bakraur. Across from the stupa was a small, dark, concrete hut, just large enough for us to sit in a circle on a thin, damp rug with a couple dozen teenagers who’d come from Bakraur and beyond to meet us. 

The girls outnumbered the boys. All of these kids were of mixed castes, though many shared the local last name of Kumari. All had gone through a three-​day training session that Pathfinder offered on basic reproductive and sexual health and had come to share what they’d learned. (Pathfinder keeps meticulous track of their trainings and the outcomes, part of a trend to quantify the effectiveness of different social-​service programs in order to make funding—​often from the results-​focused West—​go further; after tinkering with the training program over the past decade, Pathfinder reports that in the populations of unwed adolescents whom they’ve trained, the age of marriage has gone up 2.6 years, while the arrival of firstborns has been postponed 1.5 years compared with control groups.)

In this small nook of the Indian nation, all the leaden interviews of the last couple of weeks evaporated. The dreary statistics disappeared. Every kid shared a story, and by most accounts the three-​day training bordered on the transformational. They learned about basic contraception-—​that, contrary to a common misbelief, an IUD cannot end up in your brain or windpipe. They learned that it is the father’s biological contribution that determines a child’s gender, with a tiny thing called a chromosome, so that if anyone is to be blamed for the unfortunate arrival of a daughter, it is the father. The girls in the room relished this fact and repeated it often as they told their stories.

On the road in Bihar, 2013.

One of the Pathfinder programs focused on ending child marriage is called Jagriti, which means “awakening,” and the kids used this term frequently. They seemed enraptured with Pinki and Singh—​and why not? Singh was charming and informative as he teased and joked with them. Pinki was, for them, a rare example of a working woman, happy and passionate, and—​brazenly or bafflingly—​without either husband or child at thirty years old.

“Why do we give this three-​day training?” Singh asked them. “This is rare that men and women are sitting here together. Previously, women would be separate. Did we make a mistake?” He held his hand up, long fingers stretched out in a questioning gesture. “Oh god, oh mother!” he cried, “Everything’s going to hell!” He laughed and the kids laughed with him. Then he paused, and said firmly, pointing one of those long fingers at them, “Don’t think this way.” 

“We should be fearless,” Pinki added. 

The kids broke into applause, the girls clapping loudest and longest.

None of the kids in the room were married, though one girl was engaged. A boy named Papu declared that he had decided to wait until he turned twenty to get married, and that he would encourage his three sisters to do the same. But Sanoj, a sixteen-​year-​old boy in a frayed, white baseball cap, added that it wasn’t so simple. He didn’t see an easy path for his two younger sisters, one of whom had been married last year.

“There’s child marriage in our community,” he said, “and it’s difficult to make people change. It’s important for boys to wait until they’re twenty-​one for marriage and eighteen for girls. I learned this in training, but it’s not possible to make everyone understand that child marriage is a bad thing.” 

“Have you tried to explain the reasons to wait?” Singh asked him. 

“Yes,” Sanoj insisted. “When my sister was getting married, I tried to tell my grandfather and father to not do it, that she was too young, but there was so much pressure.” Maybe it is the father who puts pressure, or the village, or maybe, Sanoj said, “the girl understands the weight on the father’s head in that situation,” and does what she can to be a good daughter.

The other boys told more encouraging stories, but the girls talked at greater length. They had lost their shyness about the details of biology they had learned. Several spoke of becoming more comfortable with their bodies after having been taught what was happening to them, resolving these mysteries of their adolescence. One girl named Shruti, fourteen and the eldest of five siblings, picked at the remnants of red polish on her nails as she spoke. “They call us dirty because of our period,” she said, unaffected by the gaze of the boys in the room. Her hair was pulled back into a single braid, leaving dark wisps around her forehead. “It’s like we’re untouchable for those five days,” she said. “You feel revolting. You think of yourself as an untouchable. But it is a natural thing.”

“We couldn’t talk previously,” she continued, suddenly looking up. “We were very shy. Now that I have training, I can talk and explain this to anyone.” But still, she said, knowledge didn’t prevent the snide remarks about menstruation she and other girls had to deflect, or the forceful jibes about getting married and having a son, or the way women seemed to get blamed for everything. Which led to that catalytic question, articulated in a variety of ways by the girls in the room, that underlies their existence in patriarchal India: Why does society have such endless obligations for girls, but boys can do what they want? 

One girl took a deep breath before speaking. “Today I have a golden chance,” she said to me and the group, excited to practice her limited English. “My name is Sandhaya. I have three sisters and one brother, a simple family.” She and one of her sisters had sneaked away to this training, without their mother’s permission, and they were nervous about getting caught. She was sixteen, and lamented her life in the village. “Whenever we go out of the house, the taunting begins,” she said, “and the gossip about us. My mother said after marriage, no one will gossip about you. But is it assured?”

A few girls shook their heads. 

Speaking next were girls who had walked two hours from a village called Kanhaul, having forded a broad, shallow river to reach us. “When I went to training, my mother said it was useless. She told me not to go,” one girl, Asha, said. “When I got back, my mother scolded me because I hadn’t finished my chores at home.” Her mother was also not receptive to what her daughter was being taught. “This is all for saying, not doing,” Asha recalled her mother saying. “I told my mom, the way you married my sisters, when they were eleven, twelve, fifteen, please don’t do the same to me. My brothers-​in-​law are not very progressive. They don’t even have jobs. Things have changed.” She said that she had convinced her parents to postpone their search for a groom. “Mother saw I wanted to do a lot of things. I told her, I might not get a job right away, but I should get an education, then get married. I won’t get married before I’m eighteen years old.”

“When you light something inside a cave, or inside a beehive, it leads others,” said Suman, another girl from Kanhaul. “This training is like the light. It shows the bees how to find their own place in the beehive.”

Suman, sixteen, was slender and stubborn. “We’re determined, no matter what difficulties we’ll face, none of us will get married before eighteen or nineteen,” she said. “And we’ll only spend our lives with a good husband, as a couple.” She used the Sanskrit phrase dam pati, hinting at an egalitarian pairing. “I won’t settle for any less. What do I need to be happy and keep my children happy?”

Of all the girls, the most self-​possessed was Sobha, Suman’s elder sister. Her forehead was marked with a sparkly bindi that matched an S-​shaped pendant hanging from her neck. She sat attentively as the others spoke, only once interjecting, “We should say the truth.” Now that she had the floor, she spoke in a flood. The distracted chatter on the other side of the room stopped. 

“‘What sort of place is this?’ you’ll say if you come to my village. From Bodh Gaya, there’s a river and a hill, and behind them is the village, like a cave. People were afraid to go inside. Even my father didn’t want to stay in the village. It was claustrophobic.” There had been changes, she said. There were phones now, and a road was being paved.

Village elders told girls between fifteen and eighteen to go to Pathfinder’s training. “My situation was common in the village, where each household might have six sisters, five sisters. So we made a group with at least one girl from each house. We took the training and then we went back home to teach others.” She had to periodically gulp to catch her breath before continuing in a steady monologue, as though she had been waiting a very long time to speak.

Sobha said she was able to get a poster of the life cycle of a human being passing from birth through adolescence, followed by marriage and a young couple weighing birth-​control options, and later holding a child as it is immunized. She used it to begin talking with others in the village. Pinki and Singh exchanged looks; they had no idea this had happened, that one of their students had gone rogue, appointing herself as trainer. When Sobha finished explaining her forays into teaching, Pinki asked if she would continue to work with them to organize more training. Sobha eagerly agreed.

When we emerged from the small concrete structure, the afternoon had turned to a dull, gray mist. The boys and girls clustered in separate packs. Both Indian boys and girls are intimate within their gendered ranks—​boys link fingers as they walk down city streets, girls play with each other’s bangles. But everything in a boy’s world suggests that he is the chosen one, even before birth, when mothers bestow the wish to one another: “May you be the mother of a hundred sons.” But what opportunities awaited these boys in Bodh Gaya?

In January 2013, journalist Praveen Swami wrote an opinion piece in The Hindu titled “The Rapist in the Mirror.” In it he describes India’s transforming economy as one in which “son-​worshipping parents” have “coddled…a mass of young, prospect-​less men” into adulthood. India’s rising class of elites has shown boys like the ones in Bihar what is possible for some—​flashy motorbikes and glossy-​tressed girls and chandelier-​peaked dining tables. It is all so tantalizing, yet well out of reach. Long before India’s economy began to slump a few years ago, it was common that nearly every Bihari household had at least one male member, including children, seeking work in another state. Some boys leave before the age of ten.

So the boys go missing. But the girls are never there to begin with. For every 1,000 boys born in Bihar, there are only 918 girls—​compared to 943 at the national level and 952 worldwide. These are the “missing women” that economist Amartya Sen identified in 1990, and which Mara Hvistendahl wrote about in her recent book Unnatural Selection, which, taken together, paint a portrait of national gendercide. Sometimes the choice is stark—​sex determination in utero, followed by an abortion. But there are also more subtle forms of neglect, not as drastic as taking the newborn daughter out the back door to ritually drown her in a tub of milk, but cruel nonetheless: a sick son taken to the doctor while a daughter is tended to at home; immunizing sons first; feeding a son first when food is limited. One by one, daughters who make it to birth perish, while sons grow.

India’s skewed gender ratio means that some men will be left without the prospect of a spouse no matter where they are, a permanent class of stranded bachelors. Men, too, travel in packs, but they play out a different kind of power than their female counterparts. They make riskier decisions, what’s known in social psychology as group polarization. Young Indian bachelors are more likely than others to gather in such groups, because they move more freely, gathering at shops and chai stands, collecting at job sites and carousing on nights out. The stage is set for the kind of “risky shift” that has led to the atrocities of recent years. The men who had hired that New Delhi bus for a night out were just joy riders supposedly looking for some fun.

“For many men,” writes Swami, “violence against women works much as drugs do for addicts: It offers at least the illusion of empowerment where none exists, fixing feelings of rage and impotence.”

Pinki and Singh had shown me the shining stars of the program in that Bodh Gaya hut, but what of the control group, all the villages that were beyond the budget or reach of Pathfinder’s trainings? In Jaigir, another village close to Bodh Gaya, there had been no three-​day session. We visited on another overcast day, and the recent rains had left the village paths mired in mud. Pinki and I were led to a well to rinse off the muck before entering a house where a group of girls—​and curious onlookers—​had gathered to meet us. A pale rug had been spread upon the dirt floor for the girls, who were dressed in their finest salwars. We were directed to plastic chairs, a show of respect for the three visitors. The walls were a rough, red brick, and ears of corn hung drying from the ceiling. Villagers gathered outside the front door to watch us. The girls were slightly younger than the ones we’d met in Bodh Gaya, yet most of them were married, revealed by a touch of vermillion powder along the part in their hairline.

A Pathfinder worker leads a family-planning class in Kazarshoth, in the state of Bihar, India, 2013.

Singh introduced us, told them our purpose, and asked for a show of hands in response to a few questions, to assess the group. The average age of marriage here was fourteen. Firstborns generally arrived a year later. The girls expressed desire for three children—​ideally, two sons and a daughter. If they didn’t have a child soon after marriage, they said, they’d be scolded. 

“Have you heard of any options for delaying a child?” Singh asked them. They shook their heads. One older woman sitting behind us said she’s heard of options from the medical store nearby—​a shot and a pill, maybe—​but they cost money. 

“Are there unmarried girls here who are eager to get married?” Singh asked, his charm falling flatter with this crowd. There was a universal “no” from the group, but it was cautious. I glanced at the men standing within earshot. 

When Singh pressed them for more, one girl spoke up. “No, we don’t want to get married, because we won’t be able to continue school.”

“Can you convince your in-​laws to let you continue to go?” he asked. 

“No, it is impossible,” she said.

“Can you convince your parents to let you wait for marriage?” he asked.

“No, they want it done,” she said. 

When Pinki asked the group if they would like to have someone come and give them a three-​day training, the girls perked up. 

“Can you give them some lunch?” Pinki asked. They nodded and agreed, a little louder than the soft nays just a few minutes earlier. 

“I need a list of names,” Pinki said, “and a volunteer.”

One girl’s slender arm sprung into the air. 

Several times in our days together, Pinki nearly swooned as she talked about the changes she’s seen in the girls she works with. “They have so much energy,” she told me on the ride back from Bodh Gaya. “They have so many ideas! They just need a platform.” 

But did these girls represent a substantial shift? Was the paradigm actually changing? As girls in India become educated and learn to speak out for themselves—​to parents, to prospective grooms—​will it incite a backlash? Power is rarely conceded without a struggle, and the incidents of the past year suggest that sexual violence in India has intensified, and the victims have become younger.

But have the rapes actually increased? Or have the media “rapidly reinvented themselves as rape-​reporting journals,” as Nobel laureate and economist Amartya Sen has suggested? After reviewing data from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, Sen found that rape estimates in India were far below those in the US, the UK, and South Africa, even when accounting for underreporting on a scale of five to ten. Was it the simple fact that the New Delhi victim was a middle-​class student, as opposed to a Dalit villager, that moved Indians to take to the streets, that made it front-​page news? What will the lives of Sobha, Suman, Asha, and the others look like in ten years? Or even just five? Will they have become part of an egalitarian dam pati or will they be hidden at home raising their sons, the fruits of their hard-​won education withering? 

Pinki’s own story offers some indication of what might happen. When she tells girls to find their own voice, she speaks from experience.

We were back in the SUV, the thrum and thud of the rough road accompanied by an incessant horn as Pinki unfolded her story for me. Her mother was twelve when she married. Three years later, she had a daughter, who died shortly after. Six months later, her mother was pregnant with a boy. Nine months after his birth came Pinki. “I was very weak,” Pinki explained. “It was tough for her, taking care of the house and two young children. I had to go with my granny because it was too much for my mother.” Pinki was five when she rejoined her family, which relocated to Patna for better schools and work opportunities—​for both children and parents. Her mother had another girl, then another, to the endless disappointment of her in-​laws. “After the fourth child came, and she was also a girl, my father’s parents called my mother’s parents and said, ‘Take her. We don’t want her, making only girl children,’” Pinki told me. She remained with her husband and children regardless. Pinki remembers moments when she was very young, when her mother’s pain was so overwhelming that she could neither cook nor care for the kids. With each pregnancy, the condition worsened. Pinki learned to look after herself by the time she was ten. Her mother’s health would continue to falter until the family saved enough money to pay for a hysterectomy in 2004, easing the pain brought on by a lifetime of early and continuous childbearing that had ravaged her body. 

Through it all, both of Pinki’s parents worked. Her father opened a small electrical shop, selling switchboards and spools of wire in Patna, while her mother worked as a nurse when her health allowed it. “We all sacrificed our education for our brother,” Pinki said, though all the kids went to school—​at great expense, given their family’s limited budget. The girls shared a desk and schoolbooks to keep costs down. Her parents focused on their son. This is how it works: Send the boy to college so he can get a good job and support his parents in the years to come. Girls marry out, transferred to the groom’s family with the wedding. There is zero incentive and great disincentive for parents to invest in a daughter’s education, since it would cost them three times—​for tuition, for the increased dowry when marrying off an older girl, and in the lost funds that a working daughter might otherwise generate, which are incorporated into her husband’s household income.

Yet the model was failing the Kumari family. Pinki excelled in school while her brother floundered. Though he was a grade ahead of her, she tutored him. But when she graduated from tenth grade, at sixteen years old, it was time to find her a husband. “At first I was so happy,” she recalled. “I got to wear a sari and jewelry. And lipstick! I imagined I’d get control over my own life, which I imagined meant that I’d get to go to the movies whenever I wanted and no one from my own family would beat me anymore.” She laughed at the delusions of her younger self. 

A Pathfinder mural advertising the benefits of family planning and reproductive health, in the village of Kazarshoth, 2013.

There was one meeting with a potential groom. He asked for 20,000 rupees cash ($335 USD) plus jewelry, which was reasonable to Pinki’s family. But her father had one demand: Pinki’s education had to continue. (Though of a caste that was generally harsh toward women, Pinki says her father showed her and her sisters an uncharacteristic tenderness and compassion.) The suitor’s family would not agree to the condition.

“They didn’t have any educated girls in their family,” Pinki explained, “and didn’t want to have any educated girls in their family. They didn’t want an IAS girl”—​a working bureaucrat. “They wanted a girl who’d come and take care of the house.”

There were introductions to other prospects, but Pinki quickly realized how desperately she wanted the search to end.

“My dad was very strict, but I knew that he loved me. So even though we were living in the same house, seeing each other every day, I wrote a letter to him,” she said. “I wrote to him saying, I don’t want to do this marriage. I want to continue to study. I don’t want to become Manju Devi”—​another version of her mother. “I want to do something with my life.”

She included a vow: “I promise,” she wrote, “that I will not do anything against our family’s traditions.” 

She hid the letter in his coat pocket before he went to his shop, but he happened to read it before leaving. She watched him, hidden behind a doorway.

“He began crying as he read it. My mom came, and he showed her the letter, and she was angry. She was squalling, hitting me.” Her mother supported her education, but felt immense pressure to marry off the eldest daughter early, with two more daughters in waiting. Ultimately, the search was called off. As if the trend of daughters over sons hadn’t been enough, according to Pinki, this was it for her paternal grandparents and extended family, who refused to associate with her. Pinki and her parents would return to the village from Patna regularly, but were now unwelcome. More than a decade later, the situation hasn’t changed much, she said.

“I didn’t want my family to have to suffer for my education,” Pinki continued. She began tutoring other children to make extra money as she continued school and her brother began drinking and doing drugs. “My mother was so upset,” she said. “They’d invested everything in the boy.” Pinki’s earnings covered her sisters’ tuition fees, and Poonam Sahi, a kind benefactor who had helped Pinki’s mother before, hired Pinki to do mehindi (temporary decorative designs done on women’s hands). Sahi paid Pinki a staggering fee, exactly the amount she needed to enter intermediate school. She eventually got a BA in commerce and began supporting her entire family.

Years went by. Her little sister fell in love, and at twenty-​three the pressure was on Pinki again to be married before her younger sister, in proper order. “But I didn’t have fantasies anymore about what marriage meant,” Pinki said. “I’d seen my mother’s life, and it was not a fantasy. I wasn’t so happy, but it was the compromise I needed to make for my family.” She had her degree and was working with a chartered accountant. A few months and 150,000 rupees ($2,500 USD) later, her marriage was fixed. Her new husband was supportive, and helped her pursue a master’s degree. She paused, then recounted coming home from work one day, ​her in-​laws saying that her husband was on a walk. They heard gunfire, then ran outside and found her husband’s body. His murder remains unsolved, though Pinki believes it stemmed from a property dispute. 

She reached for her water bottle to catch her breath. Singh seamlessly stepped in, chatting about what a beautiful new bride she’d been, with mehindi designs on her palms and the finest jewelry around her neck. Outside, the fields blurred together, occasionally broken by the flash of yellow-​flowered gulmohar trees in bloom.

Pinki had resisted the role of young wife for an impressive amount of time. Less than a year after she had surrendered, celebrated, and stashed the wedding gold, she was saddled with the lifelong label of widow in a country that bears little leniency for the status. Though widows are no longer completely shunned, shaving their heads and forgoing bangles on their wrists or flowers in their hair, like my great aunt once did, remarriage is still rarely an option. 

“After the accident,” as she called it, “my father was paralyzed by the news. He felt guilty for having arranged the marriage.” Her brother had become an alcoholic, her mother continued struggling with her illness. “But I was determined.” She paused again, then added, “Binod pushed me. He was the one who said you must come back from this stigma.”

“And she hasn’t told you,” Singh said, “but she also had done three other things. She had a diploma in classic Katta dance. She had done theater. And she could shoot a gun!” These things had obviously impressed him, and he recounted them gleefully.

I asked her if she would marry again, and she laughed awkwardly. “No,” she said, then hedged. “It’s not decided. But if I did, I have one condition. I cannot leave my family. I have to help them financially. A man would not have to help my family, but he could not stop me from helping my family.” She looked out the window. “Everyone wants a girl who’s working, so she can help him”—​contributing domestic labor and wage earnings both. “But I’m not willing to compromise.”

The way men and women deal with each other in the new India is undergoing a radical test, perhaps an actual change, though it’s too early to know what the result will be. But girls in India are leaning in, tipping the balance. Women want a portion of the rights and opportunities that men have been granted, and men of lesser means want the privileges and opportunities of those above them. Everyone is striving. In this, men and women, boys and girls, share the same desires. This might explain why Pathfinder has found that their trainings are most effective when they include both boys and girls. It isn’t simply about giving knowledge to girls, or teaching boys to be respectful. It’s about what arises in the space between the two sexes.

India’s ancient, systemic chauvinism seems to be crumbling under the pressures of a changing nation and a shifting worldview. And while sexual violence has always been present, in India and elsewhere, what is new here is that it is news. What is startling is the rise of both women and men who are unwilling to accept it—​women who bring their daughters into the streets to protest, boys who fight for the rights of their sisters, men who speak to their wives with more careful voices. Alongside stricter laws against rape, which passed with remarkable speed last year, perhaps India might see the kind of social shift that allows girls to grow into women whose ambitions—​professional, artistic, or otherwise—​are encouraged.

Resistance remains. India seems poised to elect a conservative Hindu leader as prime minister. Local government officials have responded to the rash of rapes by suggesting the need to lower the age of marriage, saying it would help curb such crimes. “Boys and girls should be married by the time they turn sixteen,” they argue, “so that they do not stray.” The problems can seem intractable, a laundry list of systemic ills. But just as traditions—​a language, a style of dress—​can be lost in just a single generation, so, too, can the notion that it is necessary to marry off your daughter before puberty. I have seen the shift in my own family. My Indian grandmother was married at the age of ten. Her four daughters were married in their late teens and twenties. My father, one of her middle sons, completely broke rank, marrying an American when he was thirty. At forty-​three, I have just become engaged for the first time and have chosen not to have children. Some of my twentysomething cousins are holding out against arranged marriages they’re not willing to accept. 

The girls I met in Bihar who had had their jagriti awakening spoke in feisty voices, their excitement coupled with impatience as they told the stories of their lives to a stranger. What they found was that learning how to speak—​to a husband, a mother-​in-​law, a police officer—​is a powerful tool.

“People say, well, that one girl who did the training met a boy and ran away,” one Bihari girl told me. “We argue back—​you had her for fifteen years and they had her for three days and you’re saying we influenced her? There is a flaw in your nurturing, not in our friendship.” 

You fight back with their parents? I asked. 

Hum bolti hain!” one said. “We speak up! Before training, we didn’t know anything, but after, we do. We learned how to find the right words to negotiate. People ask us, ‘Why do you go to these meetings? Do they give you something?’ I say, ‘When you go to pray, do you get something?’ ” 

Reporting by Meera Subramanian was supported by a grant from SEJ’s Fund for Environmental Journalism.


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Cyprus resident's picture
Cyprus resident · 10 years ago

Fascinating read, thank you.

Harsh Tayal's picture
Harsh Tayal · 9 years ago

Excellent story telling.

'These things had obviously impressed him, and he recounted them gleefully.' - this sounded elitist from Meera in an article supposed to be sympathetic with even slight progress of a Bihari female. 

I am also mildly surprised by the lack of emotions from the writer in this piece. Social reporting of this type requires that the reader gets a subtle jolt to action. Overall, an intersting article.


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