How A Swiss Woman In Her 50s And An Indian College-Age Techie Teamed Up To Save Child Brides : Goats and Soda How Jacqueline de Chollet of Switzerland came to team up with a college student in India to save girls from a life of servitude.
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A Chance Encounter On A Vacation Changed Her Life — And The Lives Of Child Brides

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A Chance Encounter On A Vacation Changed Her Life — And The Lives Of Child Brides

A Chance Encounter On A Vacation Changed Her Life — And The Lives Of Child Brides

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

All this month, we'll be introducing you to some extraordinary people - people who break bindings. We're calling them Boundbreakers. And they're coming up with new ways to solve some of the oldest problems of the world. For today's profile, we're taking you to an unusual boarding school for village girls in northern India.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING GAMES)

MONTAGNE: It is just after dinner. And the girls are playing clapping games like girls all over, except that nearly half of these young girls are married. NPR's Nurith Aizenman brings us the story of the unlikely duo who founded the school, a young Indian man with a knack for computers and a much older Swiss aristocrat.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: So can we sit down and chat?

Talk to the girls here, and you quickly get a sense of just how pervasive child marriage is in their villages. It's been illegal for decades in India. That's why I can't tell you any of the girls' names. But a bubbly 16-year-old tells me people ignore the law.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: (Foreign language spoken).

AIZENMAN: "Our parents just hold the weddings in secret," she says. "At night - very rushed." She was married when she was 9 years old. 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.

How did you feel when you realized?

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: (Foreign language spoken).

AIZENMAN: "I was so said," she says, "because I had really wanted to study." And if you're a child bride, by age 15, you get sent to live with your husband to basically become a servant to your in-laws. And yet, here all these girls are, hanging out in their dorm room, planning their dream jobs.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #3: (Foreign language spoken) Teacher.

AIZENMAN: Teacher.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #4: (Foreign language spoken) Police officer.

AIZENMAN: Police officer. Because the founders of this place - it's called the Veerni Institute, and it's in the city of Jodhpur - have convinced the girl's parents to agree to a deal. The school offers free board and tuition. The parents promise to hold off sending the girls to their husbands until they've at least finished high school.

And this remarkably effective strategy for changing these girls' fate is the product of a collaboration between two rather unlikely individuals, starting with a 78-year-old Swiss aristocrat named Jacqueline de Chollet. For her, the journey began with the purchase of a shawl.

JACQUELINE DE CHOLLET: A shawl, exactly.

AIZENMAN: The year was 1993. And De Chollet, then in her 50s, was vacationing in northern India. She stopped at a dusty village and saw a woman in a house weaving a shawl.

DE CHOLLET: And she had three or four children, including a baby she was nursing in her arms. And she looked way older than her age.

AIZENMAN: So De Chollet offered to buy the shawl.

DE CHOLLET: And as soon as I gave her the money, a man walked in and took the money away from her.

AIZENMAN: De Chollet was outraged.

DE CHOLLET: I felt this woman - nobody cares about her. She's off the map. She has no rights.

AIZENMAN: And De Chollet identified with this woman because for all her privilege, growing up in the 1950s...

DE CHOLLET: My generation of girls did not go to university in Switzerland. We were sent to secretarial school (laughter) and then expected to get married.

AIZENMAN: Which is what she had done - and found it stifling. Now, by the early '90s, De Chollet had come into her own, gotten active with charities and women's rights groups. Still, it suddenly struck her that...

DE CHOLLET: Who, actually, was going to do anything for that particular woman and many women like her? Who was going to go on the ground and do something?

AIZENMAN: Then she thought, I am. She started small, raising money to bring basic health care to women in some villages. Then she shifted into education for girls. Village schools in northern India only go to fifth grade. And parents don't have a lot of money to spend on boarding school in the city.

For boys, maybe - for girls, no way. And for De Chollet, this was all about helping women get power over their lives. It's hard to do that without education. So two things became clear.

She was going to have to get the girls into a proper school in the closest city, Jodhpur. And she was going to need a really great partner from that region. She was based in London.

DE CHOLLET: You cannot run a project from abroad. We needed to create a local leadership that could take the project to where it needs to go.

AIZENMAN: As it happened, De Chollet had her eye on a possible candidate.

DE CHOLLET: Call Skype. Hello? Hello? Hi, Mahendra. How are you?

MAHENDRA SHARMA: How are you?

DE CHOLLET: I'm fine.

AIZENMAN: The man De Chollet is calling is Mahendra Sharma. These days, they Skype all the time. But when they first met, Sharma was just a high school kid who was good with computers, a city guy from Jodhpur who De Chollet hired to help set up her group's email. His first impression?

SHARMA: So yeah, I started. And I remember very clearly they were not knowing anything about the internet.

AIZENMAN: Her first impression?

DE CHOLLET: Well, he was very shy - young man. Quite, you know, self-effacing.

AIZENMAN: But then a more experienced man who De Chollet was working with to recruit girls to the new boarding school quit. That guy told Sharma that men in the villages were openly hostile to the idea.

SHARMA: So he said villagers are too aggressive. They have become crazy. And it's a very bad idea to bring us here.

AIZENMAN: But Sharma figured if he could just sit with these fathers, talk it through - so night after night, he did, fielding questions like why won't you just educate our sons?

SHARMA: Why you are taking - what's the point? They are not going to remain with us. They will go to their in-laws. And if they are all well-educated, then it is very difficult for us to get groom for them.

AIZENMAN: Well, Sharma would say, with an education, a girl can get a job and bring money into the in-laws' house. In-laws would want that. By the end of that first recruiting effort, the fathers of 39 girls had come around. And Sharma - he decided this school was his calling.

As hard as it was, you could actually really make a difference.

SHARMA: Yes, you're right.

AIZENMAN: Today, parents beg to send their girls here. They have to turn away nearly 300 a year. And a few months ago, a group of fathers stunned Jacqueline de Chollet. They asked her, how about helping us put our girls through college?

DE CHOLLET: I was just speechless. I thought it was so fantastic.

AIZENMAN: Best of all, she says, are the reports from the girls' mothers. When their daughters come home, they demand to be treated the same as their brothers. Just as much food - they won't be pushed around. When De Chollet compares them to that woman with a shawl all those years ago, it makes her proud.

DE CHOLLET: No way are they going to have the money taken away from them - no way - (laughter) no way.

AIZENMAN: These girls, she says - they know their rights. And they're equipped to fight for them. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.

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