17-year-old Rani is the role model every girl needs
Singer, martial artist, roller skating champion and monitor of her class — these are just a few of the many titles held by 17-year-old Rani, from Varanasi, India.
As if her resume isn’t impressive enough, Rani also makes time to mentor girls in her community.
“Girls are not just meant for housework. They too can do something for their society and country,” she says. But people in Rani’s community believe that girls are supposed to get married, do domestic work and stay at home. Rani hopes to become an army officer one day and wants to inspire girls to break out of traditional roles.
“I want girls to look at me and think they can achieve anything they want.”
That’s why, through her Girl Icon fellowship, Rani holds monthly meetings for younger girls in her school to discuss barriers they face at home and how to overcome them. “As girls, we are taught to always think about others first, but remember that your happiness and what you choose to do is most important — no matter how different your choice is,” Rani advised during one of her meetings.
The fellowship is designed to recognize and support girls leading change in their communities. It caught Rani’s attention when a teacher at her school encouraged students to apply. As part of the programme, Rani attends leadership training with other girls who are breaking down stereotypes and pursuing their education.
“I have learned a lot of good things,” Rani says about being a Girl Icon. After meeting other girls just as ambitious as her, she’s confident her dreams are possible and “not just daydreams.”
Washermen in Rani’s neighborhood wash clothes and linen in a river that runs through their town in Varanasi, India.
Rani’s goal of becoming an army officer is especially courageous in a community where occupation is passed down generations and determined by caste, a Hindu system of social hierarchy. Her family and most of her neighborhood belong to the Dhobi (washermen) caste — they are restricted to washing clothes and linen from other homes and hotels for a living.
“At our house, there is no money,” Rani says. But despite social barriers and struggling to make ends meet, Rani’s mother Titra Devi is determined to keep her in school so Rani can have opportunities beyond washing clothes. “If we let [Rani] study, she will be able to stand on her own feet and build her career,” she says.
Rani is the youngest of eight siblings. Three of her sisters are married and one lives with her in their parents’ home, taking care of all household chores. Unlike most girls her age, Rani isn’t made to help. “We don’t ask you to do anything so you can study,” her mother tells her.
Supported by her family, Rani excels in her classes and extracurriculars — winning medals and trophies for sports, singing and even dancing. While she enjoys everything she does, her favorite is roller skating. “I feel like I am flying,” she says.
Rani says she has had a good life. But not all girls in Rani’s neighborhood, or country, have the same fate.
38% of girls in India are not enrolled in secondary school. Those that are enrolled are likely to drop out before graduating due to stigma, poverty and child marriage. Rani’s best friend Pushpa was married at age 17 last year. Now she’s out of school and raising a child. “We used to play together and go to the market… I feel alone sometimes,” Rani says.
But Rani does not lose hope.
She is determined to continue proving that girls can accomplish any goals they set for themselves. “Girls have done some exceptional things,” Rani says. At age 17, Rani’s own list of accomplishments is exceptional to say the least. And we know that list will only keep growing.