Before There Is a Woman There Was a Girl: The Hard But Real Road to Empowerment

Before there is a woman there was a girl. In India, girls have to be eighteen before they can be married; but up to fifty percent of girls are forced by tremendous pressure to marry earlier. India’s constitution mandates education for all children until the age of fourteen; but two years later, at the end of Class 10, only thirty percent of girls are still in school. India is supposedly making tremendous economic gains; but only forty percent of women work for pay.

I learn these facts from Anusha Bharadwaj, the Executive Director of Voice 4 Girls in Hyderabad (full disclosure: she’s my niece), and Sharanya Nandini Gautam, the organization’s Development and Communications Officer. I am at the offices of Voice 4 Girls to visit my niece, and to see the other side of the story—that is, the other side of the litany of rapes and sexualized objectification that has become the story of Indian women. Since I blogged about the dark, sexist underbelly of Indian society recently (see “Full Spectrum Sexism” below), I feel obliged also to acknowledge the flip side—that across India there are many organizations like Voice 4 Girls, led by women, that successfully bring positive change into the lives of girls and women.

Voice 4 Girls—you can visit its website here: and see videos about it here:—works in the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. It runs holiday camps and year-long programs for adolescent girls who are mostly from urban and rural government schools maintained by the Tribal Welfare and Social Welfare Departments. The girls come from difficult social circumstances; they are largely from Scheduled Caste, Backward Caste and Scheduled Tribe low-income backgrounds. Voice 4 Girls empowers the girls by teaching them practical skills (spoken English, hygiene) alongside critical knowledge and life skills (elementary facts about their rights as citizens of India, strategies to recognize and deal with abuse). This curriculum, a judicious mix of the practical and the interventionist, is designed to be attractive to the girls as well as their parents.

What exactly is the change Voice 4 Girls has wrought? It is hard to quantify, but there are the wonderful stories that Sharanya shares with me—stories about girls like enterprising Manasa who has involved herself in a sustained way with the different programs of Voice 4 Girls, become a Sakhi (or student leader in her school), and even written a book! There are about 4000 such Sakhis. And over the four years of its existence, Voice 4 Girls has reached over 14000 girls through its camps and 55000 girls indirectly through its Sakhi program. Another 8000 girls will go through the summer camps this year. How can these numbers not be change of a kind, of the right kind?

As it happens, my visit to Voice 4 Girls ends with a lively discussion of the Vogue “My Choice” ad starring Deepika Padukone. That ad has come in for so much recent commentary about whether it really empowers women that I am determined to say nothing about it here beyond registering my opinion that it is less than what it seems. Whatever you yourself think of that ad, spare a thought too—and perhaps even a few bucks—for Voice 4 Girls and organizations like it. They may not be as glamorous as Deepika Padukone but they (too) walk the hard road to empowering women and the girls who become women.