She's one of 110 girls in a boarding program run by the Veerni Institute in India. When lockdowns hit, they were sent home to their villages, where child marriage is rampant.



NPR has been following the work of a remarkable boarding school program for village girls in northern India for the past few years. About a third of the students there are child brides. The rest face a high risk of being married off young.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in non-English language).

KING: That audio, recorded by NPR a couple years back, is what it sounds like there in the evening when the girls get together to play. But on March 24 of last year, at about 8 p.m., India abruptly declared its first COVID lockdown. The staff had just four hours to get all those girls back to their homes in dozens of remote villages. And that turned out to be just the beginning of the challenges ahead. Here's NPR's Nurith Aizenman.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Komal Rana, then in 10th grade, remembers the anxiety that night at the dorm in the city of Jodhpur as she rushed to pack her things.

KOMAL RANA: (Through interpreter) It was all so confusing. Everything was being shut down. I worried about my family, and I worried most of all about my studies.

AIZENMAN: In particular...

RANA: (Speaking non-English language).

AIZENMAN: ...Her board exam, a national test every sophomore in India has to pass to go on with high school. It was coming up soon, and Rana had been spending hours preparing. But the moment she got home...

RANA: (Through interpreter) Everybody in my extended family started telling my parents, enough with her studies. She's already gotten through ninth grade. What is the point of studying further? It's time to get her married.

AIZENMAN: The director of the boarding school program, Mahendra Sharma, says this attitude is common in communities like Rana's for a simple reason.

MAHENDRA SHARMA: It's mostly connected with poverty.

AIZENMAN: Poverty so severe parents can't afford to send their daughters to school past fourth or fifth grade. Many see their daughters as just one more mouth to feed.

SHARMA: So because of that, you know, they always feel that this is their burden, and they need to release from this burden as soon as possible.

AIZENMAN: Marrying a daughter into another family by the time she's 15 or even much younger is seen as the solution, even though child marriage is illegal in India. The boarding school program - it's called the Veerni Institute - offers parents an alternative. Sharma tells the families, if you send your daughter to the program, she'll get free board and schooling through high school. And with that diploma, she can get a good job.

SHARMA: Explaining the parents, look; their daughter can easily become an earning member of their family.

AIZENMAN: But the lockdown upended that deal. Suddenly, school was suspended indefinitely. Rana had just turned 18. Her parents, who work as day laborers in construction, immediately loaded her with the chores expected of a girl in her community.

RANA: (Through interpreter) We have cattle that I have to look after. There's all kinds of housework I have to do. I didn't have a chance to even touch my books.

AIZENMAN: Rana wants to become a doctor. She usually gets high scores. But that summer, when officials finally held the 10th grade exam...

RANA: (Speaking non-English language).

AIZENMAN: ...She barely passed.

RANA: (Through interpreter) Two whole days I cried, nonstop, because your score on the 10th-grade exam affects so much, even what job you get.

AIZENMAN: And Rana says, meanwhile, the pressure to get married was getting even more intense because of yet another twist of the pandemic - it made weddings cheap. Normally, families feel obligated to invite legions of guests.

RANA: (Through interpreter) But with the lockdown, you cannot invite a lot of people to a wedding, so everyone has gone ahead and done them. Many of my relatives have been married in this period. So my grandparents have been insisting that I should be married. There is social pressure, and the cost will also be low.

AIZENMAN: But back in Jodhpur, Sharma, the boarding school program's director, was crafting a plan to help Rana and the other girls. The key, he says, was to make clear to their families that even while the girls were at home, they could still get an education through remote learning. The challenge? There's no internet in the villages.

SHARMA: Most of the girls, they were not connected with - you know, with the online stuff. It was next to impossible.

AIZENMAN: But Sharma realized that because of the lockdown, a lot of migrant workers had returned to their villages, and these men had mobile phones with data plans.

SHARMA: So we tell them, look; we are creating a WhatsApp group. Will you help us?

AIZENMAN: The migrants agreed to lend their phones. And every day, the girls would do their lessons in a notebook, then snap a photo and text it to the teacher. By September, the program staff were driving from village to village, dropping off tablets preloaded with lessons for the girls. Rana was grateful. But...

RANA: (Through interpreter) It's so much harder to follow these online lessons. In the classroom, when the teacher writes on the blackboard and explains it to you, you understand so much better.

AIZENMAN: So she was overjoyed last January when the lockdown was lifted. Then in April, another lockdown sent her right back home, and the pressure to marry returned, too. Just recently, she was presented with a suitor.

RANA: (Through interpreter) Everybody in the family was saying, he's a good match. Go ahead with it; go ahead with it.

AIZENMAN: But Rana says her father has told them, no. Thanks to the support of the boarding school program, she says, my father is telling them he's going to let me study as far as I want to go.

Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF U-ZHAAN & AMETSUB'S "WELCOME RAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.