UDAIPUR: Chanda Jat, 18, belongs to village Phalichada in Rajasthan’s Udaipur district. The average girl in this region lives within conservative social boundaries and she’s accustomed to putting aside her dreams – be it of stepping out of her home to play or completing her education – for a life of domesticity marred by early marriage and motherhood, endless household chores and a very real threat of domestic violence. Chanda, however, is no average girl. With the support of her mother she has taken chances to end up being a singular exception to the norm.

It started out same as everyone. She was just a year-and-a-half old when she was engaged. By the time she stepped into her teens her in-laws started pressurising her father, a trucker, to send her off. She, however, wanted to continue her schooling. When she was in Class Nine her ‘husband’s’ family gave an ultimatum and that’s when her father decided that it was high time she gave up her studies.

Instead of giving up Chanda decided to stick to her guns and fight back. Fortunately, she had the staunch backing of her grandfather, mother and siblings. In the face of a united stand by the rest of his family, her father decided to relent but with a warning: she only had one year to complete her Class Ten and then she would have to go.

This borrowed time changed the course of her entire life – because it gave her the opportunity to discover the joys of playing volleyball. Her eyes light up as she says, “Volleyball is a no fuss sport. All one needs is a net stretched across two poles, a ball and one is set to play.” Although she had a basic idea of how the sport is played she wanted to know and so Chanda gathered a few other girls who were keen to play and together they approached their sports teacher at school to coach them properly. Their teacher knew that parents would strongly disapprove of this move and so he insisted that each one of them brings a signed permission letter from their father.

Chanda knew that her father would never agree – she had seen him get violent, even beat up her mother, when his wishes were flouted. So she simply forged his signature. It was certainly a daredevil act but Chanda saw this as a step in the direction of her dreams.

As it turned out this was indeed a wise move as she proved to be a natural at playing volleyball. She was lithe, talented and had a passion for the game. With time she gained proficiency and started participating in tournaments at different levels, which sometimes required her to travel. Again, it worked out well as her father’s work kept him away from home for varying lengths of time and he would never come to know what was happening in his absence all thanks to her mother’s tacit support.

Unfortunately, as her sporting ability grew Chanda slipped in her studies and eventually failed to pass her Class 10 exams. Disheartened, for a while, she could not bring herself to re-enrol. But not one to sit at home she decided to spend her time working along with the rest of the family on their small farmland. During this period, too, she found a new skill to learn – riding a motorbike!

One day, as she was zipping around her village, a rare sight in the hinterlands, Chanda caught the eye of some social activists from Vikalp Sansthan, a non-profit working to end gender violence in the area. They were curious to know her story and she told them about herself in exchange for more information on what the activists were doing. When she learnt that Vikalp was engaging with rural communities to spread awareness on violence against women and enable girls to stand up for their rights she decided to link up with them.

Says Chanda, “In the very first meeting I attended, I realised that my problem was not mine alone. Many girls are faced with a similar situation because of the prevalent social taboos. This narrow mindset has to change.” Connecting with Vikalp rekindled a sense of hope. She wanted to finish her studies and pursue sports with the ultimate aim of becoming a Physical Training Instructor (PTI). She was encouraged to re-enrol for Class Ten, which she cleared. Nowadays, Chanda is pursuing her Class 12 privately.

At the same time, with her newfound understanding of social issues, Chanda has been reaching out to other female drop-outs from the nearby villages. Not only has she shared her experiences to motivate them but she also goes to meet their parents in an attempt to convince them to re-enrol their daughters. In fact, it’s her goal to be able to help at least 100 girls who have dropped out of school to fill out their forms for open examinations and enable them to get back to education.

Through all of this, volleyball has been the constant that has given her immense satisfaction. Leading by example she has also roped in others like her. According to Chanda, doing different things is good, especially for girls, because it helps increase self confidence, sharpen skills and perhaps eventually result in breaking down gender stereotypes. This spirit to overturn the status quo led her to participate and travel with street plays that deal with such complex issues. Of course, whatever she did Chanda could not change her father’s outlook and had to contend with his wrath every step of the way.

Then something amazing happened late last year. Chanda was picked to participate in an International Girl Child Day event organised by the Asian Girls Campaign and The Garden of Hope Foundation in Taipei City, Taiwan. Although she knew her father would bitterly oppose it, she plucked up the courage to defy him and travel abroad with support from her mother and Vikalp members. She may not have been familiar with the procedures involved in going to foreign shores but that did not deter her. In Taiwan she was conferred with the Community Development Award 2015 and selected as a brand ambassador for Asian Girls Campaign.

While the award is special to Chanda it’s the gift she got when she returned which is most valuable to her. Her father finally felt proud of her achievements and welcomed her with open arms. Today, he has decided to give her the freedom to choose what she wants to do with her life. A visibly relieved and happy Chanda is busy doing what she loves – teaching volleyball to girls across 10 villages as part of Vikalp’s Sports for Empowerment Programme.

Her steely resolve has helped Chanda tide over the difficult times; she believes it’s only going to get better from here on.

(Womens Feature Service)