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From Bahraich to London: A Victim of Child Marriage Wins Amal Clooney Women’s Empowerment Award

“I have discovered a new sense of independence — a life where I can rely on myself. I take pride in being able to inspire other girls who face similar challenges. This newfound independence has allowed me to see the world in a different light," said Arti, one of Bahraich’s first woman pink e-rickshaw drivers.
Arti (in yellow) at Buckingham Palace. Photo: X/@KingsTrustInt

“I have discovered a new sense of independence — a life where I can rely on myself. I take pride in being able to inspire other girls who face similar challenges,” said 19-year-old Arti, a single mother and one of Bahraich’s first woman pink e-rickshaw drivers, amidst loud applause as she spoke in Hindi after winning the Amal Clooney Women’s Empowerment Award, supported by the Prince’s Trust International in London. 

This award recognises the work of young women who have succeeded against odds and have made a lasting difference to those around them. “This newfound independence has allowed me to see the world in a different light. Now, I am able to fulfil not only my dreams but also those of my daughter,” Arti added, in her speech. 

Wearing a bright maroon silk sari, her short hair swinging around her beaming round face, Arti was driven up to the red carpet in almost an identical pink e-rickshaw that she drives in the Uttar Pradesh town.  Arti’s parents are daily wage labourers; she has a brother and two sisters. She was in class 10 and just 13 when she got married.  The marriage did not last and she was soon back at her home with her infant daughter Meenakshi. With few employment options around her village, especially for a single mother, Arti focused on domestic work at home.

Arti besides her e-rickshaw. Photo: Special Arrangement

In July 2023, Project Lehar, delivered in partnership with Prince’s Trust International — founded by King Charles III, the former Prince of Wales — and the Aga Khan Foundation, introduced Arti to the Indian government’s Pink E-Rickshaw Scheme, an initiative aimed at empowering women and expanding their income earning opportunities. Since then has been providing safe transport to other women as well as inspiring other girls in her village. As pointed out at the awards cerement “she is, quite literally, driving change.”

Under this innovative government scheme, pink e-rickshaws were provided by the Bahraich district administration, with a subsidy for women drivers. The scheme aims to benefit vulnerable women, especially widows and single mothers like Arti, while also improving women’s access to safe transport, thereby increasing their mobility and independence.

It is only after joining Project Lehar that Arti began hoping for a better future for herself and Meenakshi.  “The sessions with the Lehar project helped me develop my skills. I developed an ability to solve problems, communication skills and managing stress and emotions. I am now able to take important decisions for my life,” says Arti. 

Daring to step into mobile and independent self-employment, Arti has broken multiple social barriers. Fifteen women were selected and trained to drive the pink e-rickshaws for about eight to ten days before getting their licences in Bahraich. Post the training, Arti started driving women around the town. Now, she has some regular customers as well. Initially, male rickshaw drivers taunted and made fun of her but soon fell in line and accepted the competition from the women drivers.

Driving six hours in a day, Arti earns Rs 700 to Rs 800 a day or Rs 15,000 in a month. She has been able to contribute to the family income as well as provide small

A hug for Meenakshi before Arti sets off for the day. Photo: Special Arrangement

luxuries for Meenakshi, who she drops at the anganwadi centre every morning. Her pink e-rickshaw is parked as well as charged at home.  Her long-term ambition is to drive a car and become a cab driver.

The Prince’s Trust International supports young people across 20 countries through employment, education and enterprise programmes. A day after the awards ceremony, Arti has attended a reception given by King Charles at Buckingham Palace which was arranged for her and other awardees from across the world.

Usha Rai is a veteran journalist who writes on environment and development issues.

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