Seema grew up in a traditional village in the Jharkhand state of India, where child marriage was an accepted tradition followed by the majority of girls. When this happened, they were forced into all the responsibilities of running a household, often never getting the chance to finish their education. To compound this, conditions in her village’s public school were less than helpful: there were seventy students to a class, the teachers were mostly untrained and often absent, and students were beaten with sticks for minor infractions.
Seema could have followed the same pattern, but things changed when she began to play on a football team run by Yuwa – an organization dedicated to women’s empowerment in rural Jharkhand. She also began to learn that traditions around abuse and harassment of girls and women could be changed. When Yuwa opened an all-girls school in 2015, Seema was able to pay the school fees by using her skills to coach football sessions in her spare time.
At first, she found the new lessons difficult because they were in English – a language no one in her village knew. People in her village also tried to bully her into giving up education and getting married. But she stood her ground.
As a result, Seema has had a hugely positive effect on her community. All six of her cousins have followed her lead and joined Yuwa football teams: three of them have also joined Yuwa School. Seema leads workshops for younger girls on various topics including life skills and preventing sexual assault, helping them gain confidence as well as reporting and resisting abusive behaviour in their villages.
Instead of spending their whole days on housework, the girls are now challenging common assumptions and developing themselves as people. Seema is now also writing a book about her experiences and preparing it for publication.
Seema has achieved a great deal in her few short years. Beginning in 2015, Yuwa School recognised her as its Most Improved Student. In 2019 she became one of 40 students selected from across India to complete a full academic year in the US, as part of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program. She finished her year with straight A grades, and in 2021 she will begin study at Harvard University on a full scholarship.
If she is successful in winning the Global Student Prize, she will use the money to launch a small business that will help the women in her village make and sell rugs – providing them with legal work in a safe environment. She will also build a bathroom for her cousins – who currently have to bathe at a public well – to make them safer and more comfortable. Finally, she will use a portion of the money to finance her upcoming studies at Harvard.