Nine young women who made braved all odds will receive it on Friday

A 15-year-old girl from the remote area of naxal-affected Gadchiroli district thwarted her family’s attempts to push her into the naxal movement. An 18-year-old girl mobilised a few villages and held a protest demanding a State transport bus facility to the nearest taluka from her village to facilitate the education of girls and boys. Another 13-year-old girl intervened in the child marriage of an older girl in her village and stopped it.

UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) has brought together nine such brave-hearts in the city to award them with this year’s Navjyoti award on December 13. The ceremony is held every year to celebrate the new images of young girls from rural Maharashtra. This is the 10th year.

“I realised that since there was no State transport bus to the taluka, parents didn’t send their daughters to school after class seven. I fought my parents to continue my studies but it saddened me to see my friends drop out and get married. I started mobilising the girls in the surrounding villages but faced stiff resistance. I studied the government schemes and kept petitioning to the authorities to start a bus. Finally, the authorities relented this year. Since July, we have successfully stopped 35 child marriages in our village,” 17-year-old Madhuri Ganesh Pawar says proudly. She hails from Nivdunga in Jalna district, and is the daughter of a blacksmith and a house help.

Being blessed with fiery oratory, she dreams of becoming a lawyer one day to champion the cause of the poor. “My ideal is Savitribai Phule who started schools for women,” she says.

For 18-year-old Monica Islawat, Kiran Bedi is the role model. “My parents are farm labourers. I had seen my cousin get married early and being abused by her alcoholic husband. I dreaded such future. After being sensitised, I started educating my friends about the ill-effects of child marriage. Not only did I stop a child marriage, I also mobilised people to ban alcohol in the village. My father was an alcoholic,” she says. Last year, she flew to Delhi to share her experience on a national platform. Her village is proud of her today.

17-year-old Roshna Naresh Maraskolhe from Hivardara in Yavatmal too saw her elder sister being married off at the age of 12, but didn’t want the same fate for herself. After being sensitised by UNICEF, she rejected the boy the family had selected for her. “When he kept pursuing me, I threatened to put him in jail,” she giggles.

Sunita Bora Vachami (15), studies in class nine and hails from the Bhamragad taluka of Gadchiroli, which is considered the hub of naxals. “My family wanted me to either join the naxal movement or get married. I opposed them and decided to study. They have since not met me. They do not even know about my award,” she says.

14-year-old Baby Uddhav Thoke from Salgaon in Jalna is in tears as she shares her story. After being abandoned by her father after the death of her mother nearly a decade ago, her grandmother and elder sister brought her up along with other siblings. Her elder sister, Savita, who suffered atrocities at the hands of her alcoholic husband, abandoned him and saved many, including Baby, from getting married at an early age.

Asha Tonde (16), a local wrestling champion, braved the odds to continue education and stop her marriage. She dreams of becoming an IPS officer. Saraswati Sarje (23), a nurse, wants to improve the economic status of her parents, who are daily-wagers, before getting married. Pranali Sontakke (13) holds gender sensitisation programmes at a very young age, and plans to become a doctor. Harsha Koli (17) too is very active in organising social welfare activities for her community. Most of the winners hail from tribal or backward communities.

“All these girls are being felicitated for being role models in their villages. They come from very underprivileged backgrounds, and struggle to study. Navjyoti awards which are partnered by Doordarshan Sahyadri and UNICEF, are an encouragement for them,” Swati Mohapatra, communication specialist, UNICEF, told The Hindu.