Women in India served by programs supported by American Jewish World Service. (COURTESY AJWS)
Women in India served by programs supported by American Jewish World Service. (COURTESY AJWS)

The fight against child marriage in India is my fight, too

Passover is my favorite holiday. When I was a child, my mom worked hard year after year to ensure that our seder was a joyous meal. She’d decorate our table with old family photos, scatter toy frogs and write parody lyrics to popular songs to make them Passover-themed.

In college, my non-Jewish friends eagerly accepted their first invitation to a seder, and they weren’t disappointed: They rejoiced at the endless cups of Manischewitz and searching for the afikomen around the dining hall.

Passover is, of course, a celebration of freedom and resistance. And the older I’ve grown, the more central these themes have become.

My life in the Bay Area is filled with an abundance of freedoms, luxuries and privileges — none of which I take lightly. But on a recent visit to India, my privileges were thrown into stark relief.

I was there to meet American Jewish World Service’s grantee-partners in the region. Inspired by the Jewish commitment to justice, AJWS works to realize human rights and end poverty in the developing world.

In India, many of these grantee-partners work tirelessly to fight against the root causes of early and child marriage — a form of gender-based inequality that continues to hold women and girls back from the opportunities and freedoms they deserve.

Each year, roughly 15 million girls worldwide are married before they reach adulthood, most often without their consent. Early and child marriage deprives girls of the freedom to make informed and independent choices about their lives and bodies, and it can lead to poor health, limits on education and lack of economic opportunities. Despite laws against child marriage in India and in other countries, the practice often persists because it is so closely tied to beliefs about gender roles, sexuality and economic security.

I had the privilege of meeting with young women and girls who directly benefit from organizations supported by AJWS, and I will honor them by bringing their struggle for freedom to my seder.

During our final grantee-partner visit, I sat on the floor of a community meeting space, an hour away from Kolkata, surrounded by girls between the ages of 9 and 16. This specific organization — due to security considerations in India, this article does not include the names of the organizations — funds adolescent girls’ collectives. These collectives empower young women in rural communities by providing much-needed safe spaces for girls to freely express themselves, build strong relationships and become changemakers in their own communities.

As we sat together, the girls’ initial nervous giggles transformed into confident voices as they shared, one by one, what they want to be when they grow up. These girls took the invitations to dream of the future quite seriously — and with good reasons.

Just that morning, they had changed the course of someone’s life.

Together they had marched to a grandmother’s home in their community and convinced her to cancel the wedding of her 13-year-old granddaughter. These girls stood up in strength, resistance and bravery to ensure their friend’s right to determine her own future.

Many of their desired jobs reflected their desire to grow into their power. They said they want to become police officers, commanders in the army. They want to lead.

Eventually, the girls began asking me direct questions: “Where are you from?” “How old are you?” “What is California like?” “Who do you live with?”

When I shared that I live in an apartment by myself, there was complete silence. The idea that a woman in her late 20s was unmarried and living by herself was just as foreign to them as it would be for me to imagine being forced to marry at 14.

I explained that I am extremely lucky and, due to a college education and a good job, I can financially support myself. I invite my friends over whenever I want, and I come and go as I please (an unfamiliar concept to many young women around the world who face restricted mobility). I stressed the level of empowerment I feel in knowing that everything in my home truly belongs to me.

Despite feeling that my experience was intangible to these girls — it’s quite possible they had never met someone close to their age who lived a life of such freedom — I later learned that I was actually able to offer them a glimmer of hope. That it is possible for women around the world to be autonomous, to live fulfilling, independent lives.

As I celebrate Passover this year and honor my ancestors’ struggle for freedom, I will keep these young women front and center. I will continue to seek opportunities to lift up the voices of marginalized people today — to share their stories and honor their pursuit of justice.

I hope we all continue to recognize our own freedoms and our abilities to make a difference. This year, may we all commit to building a better, stronger, more just world. Dayenu.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Shoshana Gould

Shoshana Gould lives in Oakland and works as a development officer for American Jewish World Service.