As a young woman, I visited India for the first time in 2000 while on a cycling trip through Rajasthan. I immediately fell in love with the country. I have returned more than half a dozen times since then. Now, I am deeply gratified to lead a multimillion dollar grant-making effort of the Kendeda Fund, a US philanthropy that is investing in India’s future by supporting local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) committed to ending child marriage by empowering women and girls. To achieve this ambitious goal, we will need both the powerful insights of these organizations and the robust support of Indian business leaders and philanthropists.

Child marriage in India came to my attention in 2010. I was on my first trip to the country since I had become a mother and had begun to see the world through a mother’s eyes. During that visit, I spent a memorable hour in the home of a young Indian mother, who lived in the slums of Mumbai. We commiserated over our lack of sleep, laughed over our babies’ antics, and shared smiles of pride, as I looked at her young son and showed her pictures of my daughter.

This woman was far younger than I—perhaps not yet 20. From what I learned of her life, I surmised that she would not be able to continue her education, pursue paid work of her choice, or discover who she could be in addition to being the caring mother she clearly had become.

This personal encounter was one of many in which I have learned from women in India. Over the past decade, women of diverse backgrounds have shared with me that many Indian parents genuinely want a secure future for their daughters, and these parents sincerely believe that child marriage, still a reality for over 40% of India’s girls, is the best avenue to obtain it.

And yet, we know that child marriage comes with considerable negative consequences for millions of girls: less education, fewer employable skills, higher infant and maternal mortality, and more domestic and sexual violence. Women in India have told me time and again that investing in educating Indian girls, building their skills, and helping them choose their own partners as adults would result in them living longer, healthier lives and achieving greater economic success. This would bolster their families, their communities, and all of India.

The Kendeda Fund is committed to making this dream a reality. We are collaborating with American Jewish World Service, a grantmaking NGO long active in supporting women and girls in India. Together, we will make grants to visionary community organizations and leaders that are creating safe gathering spaces for Indian girls to learn how to discuss their goals with their parents. These leaders include Indira Pancholi from Rajastahan, who has spent many decades striving towards this goal. Indira is the founder of Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti (MJAS), a local women’s organization that provides women with the support they need to respond to gender-based violence, pursue economic opportunities, and advocate against cultural traditions that keep women isolated.

Community-level efforts like Indira’s are at the heart of our philanthropic investment strategy. We understand that individuals and families in communities across India can change their own culture through their actions and decisions. To succeed, we must listen to those, like Indira, who work at the grassroots level, so that we can work smarter and invest more effectively in change that lasts.

Indian philanthropists and business leaders have a special role to play in enabling activists like Indira to succeed. Not only can they provide critical resources, but they can also participate in building powerful local alliances that cross gender, class and cultural boundaries. In this way, they can bring about sustainable change that honours the talent and commitment of the Indian people. Thankfully, India has the resources necessary to make this happen—as one of the fastest growing economies in the world. We are calling upon Indian business leaders and philanthropists to use their resources to support these groups. We know that no single activist, business leader or philanthropist can solve a problem as deeply rooted and complex as child marriage. But acting together, we can help 21st-century India realize the full potential of generations of its girls.

I am learning as I work, and my best teachers are the girls and women I meet across India. I understand now, more than ever, that the Kendeda Fund’s impact can only be as great as the ability of a generation of girls and leaders from business, philanthropy and many other sectors, to make change in communities throughout India. We know that our efforts will be stronger and more rooted in the Indian reality, when Indian business leaders and philanthropists work in partnership with us.  

Dena Kimball is the executive director of Kendeda Fund. Formerly, she has worked with Teach For All, Teach for America, and as executive director of GirlVentures in San Francisco, a non-profit organization with a mission to inspire adolescent girls to develop and express their strengths.

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