How Lalita Duhariya Became Bal Sarpanch And Stopped Child Marriage

Lalita Duhariya
As a student of class 6, Lalita Duhariya often wondered about the girls in her village who were prohibited from attending school. One of four siblings, Duhariya was born in a low-income household in Rajasthan’s Dera village. While her father, who works as a construction labourer, made sure not to compromise on his children’s education, the obstacles pertaining to village life including scarcity of resources, lack of opportunities, and patriarchal and social norms caused hindrances in not just her life but also the life of other children.

Duhariya, however, grabbed every chance that came her way to better her knowledge and seek clarity in what she wanted to do, and when the Bal Panchayat elections were held in her village, she decided to contest for it and emerged as sarpanch. That’s when her journey as a changemaker began, and she has never looked back ever since.

In an interview with SheThePeople, Lalita Duhariya talks about her role as Bal Sarpanch, how she helped eliminate child marriage, why advocating for children’s rights is equally important, and how she wishes to do more for society.

Lalita Duhariya Interview

18-year-old Duhariya is one of the few people who have stepped out of the village. Most girls in Duhariya’s village were either confined to the four walls of their homes or were limited to working around grazing the cattle; to think of doing a job, leave alone dream of leadership roles, was a near impossibility while she was growing up. While the journey wasn’t easy for her, the Panchayat coming to her village was a stepping stone for her. “When we heard there’s a separate organisation working towards advocacy for children, I sensed a miracle had happened. The Bal Ashram Trust which is a beneficiary of the Pirojsha Godrej Foundation held the elections and they guided us through it. The best part was that all of us children who became a part of the team were involved in decision-making because we knew the village better than anyone,” she recalls.

Duhariya, who always wanted to help girls in her village through education and awareness programmes found a way to navigate her plans after she got elected as Sarpanch. She left no stone unturned to fight for their rights and alter the herd mentality of the village residents who believed girls must not pursue education. “All of us kids involved in the Panchayat held meetings twice a month where we would discuss what was happening in the village and other relevant issues. We often held Mahila Mandal and Yuva Mandal meetings as well to get a clear picture. This ritual continues even today. ” she shares.

“I understood that with freedom of decision-making also comes responsibility. For me, to set a course of change, I knew I had to lead by example and earn people’s trust so they could hear me out. That’s the first step to altering any circumstance as a leader.”

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Advocate for equality

Duhariya got actively involved in all awareness campaigns supporting equality from the very start. Her three biggest concerns around casteism, education and child marriage, were also the toughest to crack. While the constitution abolishes casteism, the social standard of society still very much adheres to untouchability, and this seemed to be a major issue in her village. She decided to educate people about equality, human rights and the vitality of treating every individual with respect.

She shares with us an example of how she started people to start eating together keeping their caste ideologies aside. “We initiated this trend called a communal lunch on the occasion of Makar Sankranti which had all members of the panchayat visit door-to-door at every household and lunch with them. It was a great community-building exercise for us as we learned more about them and they, in turn, learned the power of people coming together and the disadvantage of division owing to a petty issue like caste.”

“We can’t expect people to feel equal without giving them equal opportunities and equal platforms. To establish equality in society, it’s integral to let all people know that their voice matters, that they are seen, heard and appreciated.”

Fight for education

Recipient of the Ashoka Changemaker Award, Duhariya did everything in her power to educate families about the importance of education, especially with respect to girls. While she did face a lot of flak from some families who called her a bad influence for breaking social norms, she only fulled herself further to do more. “Several girls would drop out of school to become domestic workers so they could start earning early on. This could not help us progress as a society, and we had to change that. I motivated parents to send their kids to school by constantly showing them good examples concerning education. We helped enroll girls back to schools and ensured no more dropouts.”

Role in the elimination of child marriage in the village

Constitutionally banned child marriage is still prevalent in remote corners of the country and Duhariya’s village was no exception. “A lot of children in my village and neighbouring villages were taught that child marriage is the norm they must follow. They grew up thinking they should marry early. That’s where the problem lay and we had to change that deep-rooted mindset. We befriended several children who were going that way, initiated awareness sessions with parents, started sessions in school as well and helped people change a sense of direction in thinking.”

“For several young girls in the village, knowing that there were other options for them to pursue in life other than getting married early was huge. Their expectations from life were next to nothing because they were told their value was limited to them being a wife and mother. Eradicating that perception was a step towards change.”

Lalita Duhariya

Bal Sarpanch Lalita Duhariya with her mother

Women and leadership

Duhariya may be a teenager but her ability to drive substantial narratives is only strengthening with time. Mentioning a big-scale event she was a panellist in last year, she says, “I was invited as a panellist to speak about how we can focus on the youth for a sustainable future. To see that my voice mattered to them and I had something to contribute made me more confident and grateful.”

Discussing gender equality, especially where she comes from, Duhariya reflects how equality on paper and that in real life still holds a big wide gap and only if we do away with stereotyping a gender we can focus on equalising opportunities. “A lot is being done to bridge the gender gap, but stigmas are still dominant. Even today, women continue to be stereotyped as being solely responsible for taking care of homes and families despite being educated and financially independent. That needs to change and we need to work on the grassroots level to transform mindsets.”

“If a young girl like me from a remote corner of the country is speaking on platforms today, there’s hope that we can all together help change people’s lives for the better and give them a chance to rise above.”

What lays ahead

Currently studying in her BA first year and adjacently taking a teacher training course, Duhariya aims to contribute to society as a teacher and then enrol herself for civil services later. “I believe teaching is an instrumental tool in influencing young minds. I want to learn more so I can impart that knowledge and awareness to young children. I was given an opportunity as a young child and I want to take that torch ahead for others too. Post that, I would be preparing for Rajasthan civil services because I wish to implement changes at the administrative level as part of the system.”

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