A generation yearning for change

By Kerri Whelan
April 12, 2020

I met a friend for coffee a few weeks ago. We sat across from each other in velvet green armchairs, steam rising from our mugs into our noses. In a pause between the icebreakers I ask someone I haven’t seen in a while — “How’s work? How’s your family? Is it hot in here or is it just me?” — both of us turned to listen to the news on the TV behind us.

That’s when the real conversation started. The news segment that marked the end of our small talk was a story of a girl rescued from sex slavery, right here in the U.S., right in our own backyard.

“I don’t want to hear things like this anymore,” my friend said with a shaking head, placing her mug on the table between us. “When will we get to the day when girls don’t have to be rescued anymore? Who’s going to change things?”

I couldn’t give my friend any concrete answers. All I could do was match her frustration. The stories from your own backyard sometimes feel like they happened to you, or a friend. They’re especially painful to bear. But my friend and I can shut it off. Millions of other girls don’t get to sit in coffee shops and shake their heads. They have to live in shackles, knowing their ability to create change, forced to stay barricaded by their cultures.

But what if girls had the power to break free? Like the girl from the news, they could be the heroes in their stories. And today, because I know a similar girl named Sravani, I feel I can answer my friend’s questions.

Sravani is a 19-year-old girl who lives in India. The first thing her father said when she was born was, “We can’t afford a dowry. We should sell her.”

“My mother wouldn’t hear any of it,” Sravani said. “She saved me from being sold to sex traffickers by my father. She left him, rented a piece of land, and sent me to school. She helped me get my second chance.”

Their lives were good for a while after turning the page on her father. Sravani was getting her education, and her mother ran her own farm. But when Sravani was about to start high school, her mother was injured while working. Their only way to survive was for Sravani to drop out of school and make an income.

She got a job with her local community council. There, she learned that out of the 108 girls in her village, only 20 of them were able to go to school. The other 88 were either at home or working. “I asked if there was anything I could do,” Sravani said. “And there was.”

It was the Girls’ Advocacy Alliance, run by Plan and its partners. Sravani became a part of the growing network of girls who advocate against trafficking, child marriage and gender-based violence.

“A lot of girls in my community get excited about marriage because they get to wear a nice dress and be pampered,” Sravani said. “But life after a wedding is no bed of roses.”

In a community where child marriage is normalized, it takes a lot of convincing to cease tradition. When we asked Sravani how she opened so many closed minds, she said she had to tell a story from their own backyard. It had to hit home. This was her backyard story.

“My cousin wanted to be a professor, but then she was married off,” Sravani said. “She didn’t realize becoming a wife was a life sentence.”

Her 12-year-old cousin became pregnant three times. She miscarried with each pregnancy, because her body wasn’t built to bear children yet. Her husband became an alcoholic, and she pays the price. Every day, her cousin dreams about what life would look like had she been able to take the path toward school, the path that she had really wanted to take.

The power of her cousin’s story helped Sravani stop 10 child marriages and get at least 50 girls back in school. After two years of changing what it means to be a girl in her village, her mother recovered, and Sravani got to go back to school. She’s going to graduate and become a police officer.

“If my mother chose to side with my father, I would be living a very different story, if one at all,” Sravani said. “That’s what motivates me to do this. And I’m not the only one. There’s a whole generation out there yearning for change.”

Youth advocates like Sravani are who we need to rally behind. They know the change that our world needs, and they act. As for the rest of us, like you, my friend and myself who want to leave injustices behind us? We have to want to listen. I don’t know the name of the girl on the news, because I didn’t listen enough. We got frustrated and turned our backs to her. She could’ve asked us to rally alongside her, but we wouldn’t know.

But now I know what we do. We keep ourselves informed. Then, we join their fight. And like Sravani, we hold on, knowing we’re not alone. That way, maybe years from now, my friend and I can meet again over coffee and feel good knowing we did something to create the better world we’ll be in.