A Different Type of Hero

The Veerni Institute now makes it possible for 75 girls to continue their education. But the group has to turn away nearly 300 applicants each year for lack of funding. Poulomi Basu for NPR

The Veerni Institute now makes it possible for 75 girls to continue their education. But the group has to turn away nearly 300 applicants each year for lack of funding.
Poulomi Basu for NPR

“It all began with a shawl…” seems like the stuff of fairy tales, but the combined attraction to a handmade textile and the desire to help the woman weaving it proved a pathway to Jacqueline de Chollet’s life work. Over 20 years ago while traveling in a dusty village of India she saw a woman weaving the shawl in her home.

“She had three or four children including a baby she was nursing in her arms,” de Chollet recalls. “And she looked way older than her age.”

Hoping to provide a little help, de Chollet offered to buy the shawl. “And as soon as I gave her the money a man walked in and took the money away from her.”

De Chollet was outraged. “I felt, this woman — nobody cares about her. She’s off the map. She has no rights.”

Although de Chollet came from far different circumstances as this woman, growing up in the 1950s she felt that society dictated her position as a wife and mother. She wanted to make a difference in the world, and felt that addressing the issue of the rights of women and girls in India was an important first step.

In the more than 20 years since, de Chollet, who is now 78, would go on to found a project that has saved almost 200 north Indian village girls from a life of servitude. And she did do so by teaming up with the unlikeliest of partners — a then-18-year-old Indian guy with a knack for computers and no particular plans to tackle the child marriage issue.

The organization they’ve created is called the Veerni Institute. The nonprofit operates a boarding hostel for 75 girls in the city of Jodhpur and pays for them to attend a private middle and high school a short walk away. Its annual budget of just over $150,000 is raised from family foundations and individuals in Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the U.S.

I first visited the Veerni Institute for an NPR report that ran last year and returned to report another story earlier this year.

Talk to the girls there and you quickly get a sense of the Veerni Institute’s impact. Child marriage has been illegal for decades in India. That’s why we can’t disclose any of the girl’s names. But on one of my trips, a bubbly, 16-year-old tells me, people in her village simply ignore the law.

“Our parents just hold the weddings in secret,” she says. “At night — very rushed.” She was married at age 9.

A bunch of other girls nod. They were all married around that age too. A shy girl in a pink T-shirt says she didn’t even understand what was happening at the time. Later, when she realized she’d been married, she says, “I was so sad, because I had really wanted to study.”

And if you’re a child bride, by the time you hit puberty, you’re sent to live with your husband to basically become a servant to your in-laws.

Yet here all these girls are, sitting in their dorm room at the Veerni Institute, talking excitedly about their dream jobs. “I want to be a teacher,” says the shy girl. “I think explaining things to students and seeing their progress would be so satisfying.”

“I want to be a police officer,” says the outgoing one. “They can stand up for themselves and say whatever they want.”

And it’s all possible because the staff of the Veerni Institute have convinced the girls’ parents to agree to a deal: In exchange for the free lodging and tuition Veerni provides, the parents sign a pledge promising to hold off sending the girls to their husbands until they’ve at least finished high school.

It seems like an obvious solution. But the road to get there was anything but simple.

Read and listen to Nurith Aizenman’s full NPR post here.

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