Good News for Girls
Sometimes, in the great tide of gloom that engulfs us every day – mostly war, famine, corruption, madness and mayhem – something comes along that restores your hope for the future, and I feel quite overwhelmed at three little pinpricks of light that have emerged recently.
The wedding tent man
Having got up from the sofa at 2am to go to bed, I was listening to the World Service while I cleaned my teeth and heard from a man who must be a saint in the making.
Ravi Jindal is the wedding tent man of Rajasthan. A few years ago he arrived at the house with the tent the family was hiring to celebrate the wedding of their daughter and realised that she was just a child. He put his foot down and called the police: the legal age for a girl to marry in India is 18. He had three daughters at home, and this was not what he would have wanted for them. Though he knew it would cost him a lot of business, he made a policy decision. He would never hire out a tent for a wedding without seeing the bride’s (or in a few cases, the groom’s) birth certificate, and if she was underage, it was no deal.
But however principled his stand, he was just one person, and on his own could not make much of a difference. He began talking to fellow tent suppliers, and together they have formed the 9,000-strong Tent Dealers Welfare Association of Rajasthan, which over the past two years has stopped at least 80 marriages. “We complain to the police, to the village headman, and get them to intervene,” he says.
India is responsible for a third of the 15 million girls who are married before their 18th birthday every year, so the law needs support from public opinion and pressure from the grass roots to make any sort of progress – Ravi Jindal has set the ball rolling.
Sisters are doing it for themselves
The much-maligned London Borough of Lambeth put a great deal of thought into how it was going to spend £7m given by the mayor for improving the look and feel of one of its many run-down neighbourhoods. It decided to go one better than simply having an expert draw up plans and put them out for consultation. The Streetworks scheme involved residents right from the start in identifying what needed doing.
I joined a focus group that met several times to discuss things like safer crossings, parking, cycle lanes, plantings, etc. I know it might not sound like it, but it was a lot of fun, and, what’s more, it involved a really diverse range of people – all ages, races, long-time residents, and those who’ve just moved here.
But the stars of the scheme were a group of girls from Elm Green School. The planners went into the school to invite the pupils to contribute on the issues that affected them, such as said crossings, location of bus stops, safe walking routes, but soon found a band of determined and opinionated girls (the boys stayed away, I’m sorry to say) keen to get their hands on a project.
They took over the consultation on how to improve a rather dismal alley leading from the main road to the station, conducting surveys to find out the views of commuters and residents. They then drew up plans for better lighting, street art, improved cycle racking and a monthly market, all the while working within the budget for their bit of the scheme. They learnt a lot about urban geography, of course, but perhaps more importantly their confidence grew to the point where they joined professional planners in a visit to Transport for London’s headquarters and gave a presentation about their work.
It was a pleasure to see them at the Streetworks awards ceremony last week, proud of their achievement and armed with valuable new skills for the road ahead.
On 23 February last year, a Royal Brunei Airlines Boeing 787, piloted by an all-female crew to mark Brunei’s national day, landed in Jedda, where women are not allowed to drive a car. The flight highlighted how successful Royal Brunei Airlines have been in getting more women into its industry. Its engineering apprentice programme is open to boys and girls alike.
I think the photo shows very clearly that taking control of a large piece of machinery needn’t turn Muslim women into apostates.