Shadhika Shadhika


Young women and girls are now finding and using their voices to address issues of gender justice, equity, feminism, inclusion, and transformational leadership in their respective communities.

Shattering Ceilings & Blazing Trails

By Vanessa Chauhan, Shadhika Board Member

March 16, 2021

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Young women and girls in India typically don’t get opportunities to enjoy their childhood years to the same extent that their counterparts do in the Western world. Many are born into abject poverty and are confronted with the decisions of supporting and contributing to the survival of their family unit instead of going to school and reaching their full academic and career goals and potential. For the lucky few, the choice is theirs to make, but the likelihood in most cases is that the decision is already made for them by their families.

To be born a girl in India, is to live with the assertion that she is a burden to her family and that her primary duties while in their care, is to learn to be a good and servile daughter who will work to support her current family and bear children and take care of her in-laws, once married. Poverty, discrimination, generational debt bondage, gender-based inequality and violence and, antiquated societal norms and expectations only serve to exacerbate this narrative and reality for her as she’s called to answer her family’s desperate cries for their basic survival needs to be met, instead of enjoying the right to pursue her own dreams and make life choices for herself.

When education is sacrificed because a young girl or woman is forced to marry or work to feed herself and her family and pay for a roof over their heads, she is deprived of the endless opportunities for leadership, personal and professional growth, and economic success that a pathway of education and empowerment affords her. She is denied the agency and autonomy to forge her own future, to make her own choices about her own body, her sexuality, and her identity, and she will remain vulnerable to marginalization and exploitation.

An educated and empowered girl will shatter ceilings and blaze trails through womanhood.

I know all these things to be true because I have seen it and heard it around me growing up, and I have felt some of it myself. My grandmother was a child bride and my mother was raised by an extended family member after the death of both her parents while she was a young child. While she attended school in her early years, my mother’s education became less of a priority as she entered adolescence, and as the focus shifted towards finding her an appropriate marital match. My father on the other hand, was raised on the importance of education as the bedrock for individual success and growth. Upon his father’s death during his final year in law school, he sacrificed his own career goals and secured a job that would ensure that his 4 younger siblings – 3 brothers and 1 sister – were able to complete their education. My parents married when my mother was 18 and my father was 26 years old. It was an arranged marriage which included a monthlong courtship. While education remained at the forefront of their priorities for all their children, the stresses of having 2 daughters (and one son) to one day marry off, also consumed their thoughts, especially as we got older. When I turned 18, the pressure to marry and meet potential suitors became more obvious and intense. As the oldest of my siblings, my successful marriage would ensure a more hopeful trajectory for my younger siblings. This was a burden too heavy for me to bear, and so began my quest for independence and self-determination. I found my voice and my courage to stand up to societal and familial pressures and to negotiate for opportunities to pursue my own goals and dreams, while successfully abating any plans for marriage until I was ready. This path continues to be challenging and can sometimes appear hopeless. Persistence and understanding are key, especially when cultural norms and roots run so deep.

Luckily, we are seeing a seismic cultural shift in recent years . Young women and girls are now finding and using their voices to address issues of gender justice, equity, feminism, inclusion, and transformational leadership in their respective communities. The Indian diaspora is awakening to a new era that shatters the mores of old and is centered in the rights and worth of young girls and women, as well as the value of investing in them. Young girls are seeing themselves in amazing leaders like Dr. Swati Mohan, who guided and controlled the successful landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars this year; like Kamala Harris, the first female, Indian & Black Vice President of the United States; like Priti Patkar, a renowned social worker and activist who pioneered and cultivated a culture of care and protection for children vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking; and like, Hima Das, a sprinter who became the world junior 400 meter champion in 2018 and was inducted as the Deputy Superintendent of Assam Police in February 2021. These names are but a mere few of a groundswell of Indian trailblazers that span the world and inspire our young girls and women of India. These women are powerful role models and we need more who can truly represent the full diversity of the communities they inspire.

An educated, empowered girl or woman is a force to be reckoned with. As the primary decisionmaker in her life, she can decide how to balance her family and cultural obligations with her own dreams and aspirations. She just needs a fair chance.

This is why I believe in the mission of Shadhika and I decided to become a board member last year. Shadhika’s theory of change is clear and simple: When we invest in the individual girl, she creates a ripple effect that empowers herself and others, lifts up her community, and scales globally to impact positive change. As an educated woman of Indian origin, I am honored to join this crucial mission to empower and educate women and girls in India as a Shadhika board member. With a relentless intention and a determined resilience, we will continue to support opportunities for young girls and women in India to be empowered leaders in their communities and families. Because when she leads, change follows!

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