Priyanka Bairwa was 15 when her family, began to look for a husband for her. The pandemic sped up the process, as schools shut and work dried up. By October 2020, her parents had settled on a suitable boy from their village of Ramathra in the district of Karauli, Rajasthan.
But Bairwa, now 18, wouldn’t hear of it. “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 Bairwa. “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.”
In Rajasthan, one in three women aged 22 to 24 were married before the age of 18, according to government data.
Bairwa, who is Dalit, considered the lowest caste in India, defied the trend. And then did more: starting a movement of young women and girls, Rajasthan Rising, centred in Karauli’s villages to rally for their right to free education, scholarships for higher education and freedom from child marriage, child labour and caste and gender discrimination.
“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,” she says.
She began with 10 friends. “We began to visit other villages and, with the help of local activists, hold meetings, gathering more girls and making them aware of their constitutional rights. Village elders were often wary, many did not allow us in. But we kept returning; soon we had 100 girls in the group.”
Over the next few months, their numbers swelled to more than 1,200 and, by March this year, it became a formal alliance, spreading further across the state. They learned to use laptops and the internet, contacting education officers, political leaders and state ministers to seek meetings where they presented their goal: every girl to receive free education until grade 12, age 17 to 18, along with a minimum scholarship of Rs 5,000 (£49) at the start of every school year.
The girls took Rajasthan Rising to the streets. They painted slogans on walls calling for free girls’ education and against child marriage. They wrote about discrimination, and emailed Rajasthan chief minister, Ashok Gehlot, who sent them a note of encouragement. “Many villagers called us mad. But we had a clear goal, to reach vulnerable girls in all 33 districts of the state and demand long-term change,” says Bairwa. T he eldest of four, she was drawn to the cause when she went with her mother to her cleaning job at the offices of non-profit, Alwar Mewat Institute of Education and Development, in the town of Sapotara.
“I found my voice there, where I was treated as an equal. I listened in to meetings about child marriage and education for girls. I learned how to create awareness and lead campaigns,” she says.
Vineeta Meena, 20, joined Bairwa. “Our group has intervened and stopped several child marriages. In my village, Gokalpur, my neighbour Saira Bano, 16, was about to be married last year. We formed a group and kept going to her house to protest until her family promised to call it off,” she says. Bano has now joined Rajasthan Rising. In March about 120 of the young women left their homes to travel to Jaipur, accompanied by regional education activists, for the group’s first state-level meeting. Over three days, they discussed breaking gender barriers and bringing about change.
“Our demands are quite basic, so we are confident we will be heard. It’s clear that if education is made completely free, we can prevent dropouts and, in turn, child marriage,” says Najiya Saleem, 19, a Rajasthan Rising leader from Alwar, whose sister was married early.
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 says.
Karauli’s education officer Ganpat Lal Meena, has invited the group to submit their suggestions to him, noting that this level of mobilisation marks a shift in how education and child marriage is seen in the region. Meena agrees: “Being part of this collective makes me feel that we are no less than anyone. We can do anything. I feel more free.”
US gymnast Simone Biles received immense support from Americans this week after announcing she would not be competing in the Team USA final, nor the women’s individual all-around gymnastics final, due to personal mental health concerns. At the same time, the 24-year-old has received backlash from many individuals who viewed her pull-out as weak.
Aaron Reitz, deputy attorney general for Texas, took to Twitter on Wednesday evening to issue an apology to Biles, and recant a statement in which he panned the record-setting US gymnast as a “national embarrassment.”
“In a moment of frustration and disappointment, I opined on subjects for which I am not adequately versed. That was an error. I can’t imagine what Simone Biles has gone through,” Reitz claimed. “Simone Biles is a true patriot and one of the greatest gymnasts of our time.”
“I apologize to her, and wish her well,” the deputy AG concluded, emphasizing that his “personal social media comments” do not represent the views of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, nor the Office of the Attorney General.
Reitz’s since-deleted tweet against Biles, who was born in Texas and still resides in the Lone Star State, quoted another post that applauded the 1996 Olympic performance of Team USA gymnast Kerri Strug. Strug, one of the US’ “Magnificent Seven,” severely injured her ankle during the first half of the vault competition, but refused to bow out of the event and ultimately led her team to win the US’ first gold medal in women’s gymnastics.
“Contrast this with our selfish, childish national embarrassment, Simone Biles,” Reitz said in his quote tweet.
Aaron Reitz is the deputy attorney general for legal strategy under AG @KenPaxtonTX.
This tweet, in which he calls fellow Texan Simone Biles a “national embarrassment,” came outside of work hours but he often tweets hot takes between 9a-5p.
The deputy AG’s attempt at using Strug’s story to chastise Biles fell flat, as the two-time Olympian threw her support behind the 24-year-old on Tuesday.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that Biles is no stranger to performing with adversity. When the US Women’s Gymnastics team took home gold at the 2018 World Championships in Qatar, Biles dominated in nearly every competition, despite intense stomach pains from what was later confirmed to be a kidney stone.
Despite her pull-outs this year, Biles has continued to root for her fellow Team USA gymnasts. She also expressed in a Wednesday social media post that “the outpouring [of] love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.”
With all the fanfare Covid would allow, the global education summit opened in London this week. Ahead of the meeting, the minister for European neighbourhood and the Americas was on rousing form. “Educating girls is a gamechanger,” Wendy Morton said, going on to describe what a plan would look like to do just that.
The UK, co-hosting the summit with Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, plans to raise funds for the Global Partnership for Education, from governments and donors. The UK government has promised £430m over the next five years.
There followed a number of reasons why the issue is so important, all of them absolutely sound: on any given indicator, from GDP to infant health and beyond, a nation stands or falls by how well, for how long, and how inclusively it educates its girls.
These are all the right words, even in the right order, yet they land completely at odds with the government’s behaviour.
Lis Wallace, head of advocacy at the One campaign, is most immediately concerned with these pledges being fully funded. There are two core targets: one is to increase girls’ access to education, the other is to boost the key milestone for all children – that they’re able to read and understand a simple story by the age of 10.
The past 18 months have been devastating for education, particularly in countries where it’s harder to access to online learning. About 1.6 billion children are out of school across the world. There’s a target to raise $5bn (£3.6bn), “which is a drop in the ocean of what is required to meet the global learning crisis”, Wallace says. It looks as though this summit will raise no more than $4bn, which is nothing less than a “failure of statecraft”, as Wallace explains: “It’s challenging when the host government is stepping back and making aid cuts for it then to ask other countries to step up.”
This is a depressing echo of the G7’s failure earlier this year; commitments to share vaccine doses with low-income countries came too little, too late, with devastating results, and it’s hard to avoid the question of whether that outcome would have been different if the host nation had role modelled some generosity.
Furthermore, there’s some confused causality in the minister’s assertion that staying in school protects girls from “forced child marriage, gender-based violence and early pregnancy”. The exact inverse is true: it is largely teenage pregnancy that forces girls out of school in the first place, and to try to use education in lieu of sexual health and reproductive provision is illogical.
Esi Asare Prah, who is a youth and advocacy officer in Ghana for MSI Reproductive Choices, describes a situation in which 5,000 to 7,000 girls drop out of school each year after becoming pregnant – last year, 2,000 of them were between 10 and 14. Across sub-Saharan Africa, MSI estimates that up to 4 million girls drop out or are excluded from school every year due to pregnancy.
“These girls are most likely to be on the street, doing menial jobs; their children will not make it into higher education. It creates a cycle of poverty and a cycle of slums. For me, the foundation of it is that you can’t seek to invest in education for girls in sub-Saharan Africa and cut down funding for sexual and reproductive health. If you treat development issues as isolated, you will have the same issues of 50 years ago chasing you into the future.”
Here, the recent cuts to the aid budget make a mockery of these pledges on education: UK funding to the UN Population Fund recently went down by 85%.
There is inspiration to take from this summit, nevertheless; President Kenyatta has been leading the charge not only on education but also on the climate crisis, and there is a solidarity and sense of purpose between poorer nations that may yet inspire greater generosity from donors. Whatever it achieves, though, it will be despite its UK host not because of them.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken affirmed his country’s support to conduct additional investigations into the origins of the Covid-19 after meeting with the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Wednesday, Reuters reported. “He stressed the need for the next phase to be timely, evidence-based, transparent, expert-led, and free from interference,” a US state department spokesperson said in a statement.