Shilpa Raj is an incredible young woman. As the speaker for the Overseas Women’s Club’s International Women’s Day celebration, she absolutely captivated a room full of people. I wasn’t in on the planning, but I’m sure there was no hesitation about planning the celebration around her schedule, even when it meant celebrating a week after March 8. Shilpa candidly told us all about her experience growing up in India, straddling two very different worlds.
In one world, the world of Shilpa’s birth and of her family, girls are not valued and female infanticide is not uncommon. A girl is expected to drop out of school at adolescence and marry the man of her family’s choosing, most likely an older relative like an uncle. Failing that, she might be expected to sell her body to get by. She is not expected to find joy in her life, but merely to survive and ensure the survival of her children through any means necessary. She will likely face abuse from her husband, endure back-breaking work, and suffer malnutrition.
In the other world, the world of Shanti Bhavan and the people who raised Shilpa, girls are empowered and pushed to excel. They know that they are as capable as the boys around them, and that they can accomplish anything they set out to do. And just as importantly, the boys know it too. Marriage is something the girls of Shanti Bhavan can consider on their own terms and on their own timelines, should they choose to consider it at all. But first they can discover their own passions and chase their own dreams.
This is not to say that girls in Shilpa’s village are terribly constrained while the girls of Shanti Bhavan live lives of total freedom. Shilpa and her classmates were all raised with a solid understanding of their responsibility for their families, for their communities, and for the changing culture of India. Sure, they can pursue their dreams, but their dreams must include high paying jobs that will allow them to put their siblings through school, care for their parents and grandparents as they age, provide services to their rural villages or urban slums, and provide financial support for Shanti Bhavan as well. Shilpa is only 24 years old and she wears this blanket of responsibility with pride, even if it is a bit heavy. And she wears it with love.
Having narrowly escaped a wedding with her mother’s younger brother, marriage is the furthest thing from Shilpa’s mind. As baffling as her parents find it, she continues to pursue more education. She intends to become a clinical psychologist, able to support children like those in her village, who have experienced trauma and suffer depression. Her younger sister’s suicide at 14 is a constant and painful inspiration for Shilpa. In her memory, she will make a difference in the world. She shares her story in presentations around the world, and in her book, The Elephant Chaser’s Daughter.
When asked if she enjoys presenting, Shilpa says, “I love it. I have a voice. So many women here have no voice at all. As long as I can speak for them and for myself, I have an obligation to speak.”
As an American woman in India, I am always aware of my privilege. I cannot live here without embracing a call to make a difference. Many people in India are doing beautiful and important work, running orphanages, caring for people with disabilities, teaching the children of construction workers who would otherwise grow up without school at all. I applaud them all, but Shilpa and her classmates inspire me like no one else has. They and those who come after them will change India, proving that there is no such thing as an “untouchable child,” that everyone has potential and gifts that should be nourished. And they will succeed professionally, driving change for their communities and touching the lives of countless people as they grow.
If you’d like to support the work of Shanti Bhavan, please take a look at our fundraising page.
Let’s help Shilpa and her classmates change the world.