It all began with a shawl.
The year was 1993. Jacqueline de Chollet, a Swiss woman then in her 50s, was on vacation in India when she stopped at a dusty village and saw a woman in a house weaving a shawl.
"She had three or four children including a baby she was nursing in her arms," de Chollet recalls. "And she looked way older than her age."
Hoping to provide a little help, de Chollet offered to buy the shawl. "And as soon as I gave her the money a man walked in and took the money away from her."
De Chollet was outraged. "I felt, this woman — nobody cares about her. She's off the map. She has no rights."
And in an odd way, de Chollet also identified with the woman. Odd, because, de Chollet had led a privileged existence as the daughter of a Swiss baron. Still, she says, growing up in the 1950s, she felt her own path in life had also been tightly circumscribed.
"My generation of girls did not go to university in Switzerland. We were sent to secretarial school and then expected to get married."
Which is precisely what de Chollet had done. After a one-year stint as a secretary in New York, she married a British businessman at age 22 and moved to London to set up house.
"I had three children and lived in a very male-oriented society where women really were not included in the conversation," she says.
Her early attempts to break free of those constraints were telling. She joined the board of a housing charity in London. At meetings, she says, "one member in particular would often remark that, 'some of us here have no understanding of financial matters,' looking straight at me as the only woman on the board. I used to leave in tears some times."
Eventually, de Chollet had managed to come into her own, becoming the chair of that same charity board and getting involved with women's rights groups.
Still, standing in the woman's house in India that day in 1993, she was suddenly struck by the thought that, "there were people talking everywhere at conferences about women's rights, but who, actually, was going to do anything for that particular woman — and the many women like her?"
Then she thought, "I am."
In the more than 20 years since, de Chollet, who is now 78, would go on to found a project that has saved almost 200 north Indian village girls from a life of servitude. And she did do so by teaming up with the unlikeliest of partners — a then-18-year-old Indian guy with a knack for computers and no particular plans to tackle the child marriage issue.
The organization they've created is called the Veerni Institute. The nonprofit operates a boarding hostel for 75 girls in the city of Jodhpur and pays for them to attend a private middle and high school a short walk away. Its annual budget of just over $150,000 is raised from family foundations and individuals in Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the U.S.
Talk to the girls there and you quickly get a sense of the Veerni Institute's impact. Child marriage has been illegal for decades in India. That's why we can't disclose any of the girl's names. But on one of my trips, a bubbly, 16-year-old tells me, people in her village simply ignore the law.
"Our parents just hold the weddings in secret," she says. "At night — very rushed." She was married at age 9.
A bunch of other girls nod. They were all married around that age too. A shy girl in a pink T-shirt says she didn't even understand what was happening at the time. Later, when she realized she'd been married, she says, "I was so sad, because I had really wanted to study."
And if you're a child bride, by the time you hit puberty, you're sent to live with your husband to basically become a servant to your in-laws.
Yet here all these girls are, sitting in their dorm room at the Veerni Institute, talking excitedly about their dream jobs. "I want to be a teacher," says the shy girl. "I think explaining things to students and seeing their progress would be so satisfying."
"I want to be a police officer," says the outgoing one. "They can stand up for themselves and say whatever they want."
And it's all possible because the staff of the Veerni Institute have convinced the girls' parents to agree to a deal: In exchange for the free lodging and tuition Veerni provides, the parents sign a pledge promising to hold off sending the girls to their husbands until they've at least finished high school.
It seems like an obvious solution. But the road to get there was anything but simple.
De Chollet began by trying to help women in remote villages get basic health care services including family planning. She and her third husband pitched in about $300,000 of their own funds to pay for a team of medical workers.
There were hiccups from the start. To conform with Indian laws about charitable donations by foreigners, de Chollet had to work through an Indian nonprofit to procure supplies. In the eyes of these Indian colleagues she was a British aristocrat — her second marriage had been to the Viscount of Weir, which had made her the Viscountess of Weir. And when she arrived in Jodhpur for the health team's inaugural trip, she was horrified to find that the medical team's van bore a huge sign reading "Viscountess of Weir project." Not only was she no longer the Viscountess — she'd divorced that husband a few years earlier — but more important she says, laughing, "it sent totally the wrong message! It sounded like something out of the British Raj."
But the effort had already been widely promoted as "the Lady Weir project." Can't you find a name that's at least similar, her Indian colleagues asked. A friend in Delhi suggested a solution: "Veer" means hero in Hindi; "ni" means woman. How about Veerni? "So it's the hero-woman!" de Chollet exulted. By 1994 the name was made official.
Despite some early difficulties — including an incident when village men who were opposed to the medical team's promotion of birth control chased them out and threw stones at the van — de Chollet persevered. It helped that she expanded the services to include health care that even the men would appreciate — glaucoma operations for elders in the villages, for instance, and basic check-ups for children. In each village she hired a man and a woman to work as the group's contact, providing a source of income. Soon the villages began to warm up to the Veerni Project — so much so that by the early 2000s de Chollet felt it was time to broaden her ambitions into girls' education.
"Education is the only thing you can do that will change society," she says. "Everything else is just a band-aid."
The problem: Village schools in India only go to fifth grade. There are plenty of schools in the city — even relatively low-cost public ones. But parents don't have a lot of money to spend on lodging. They might raise it for a son but almost certainly not for a daughter.
At first de Chollet tried paying for a tutor to visit the villages for a few hours each week. But the girls' exam results were abysmal. By 2004 de Chollet had reached two conclusions: She was going to have get the girls into a proper school in the closest city, Jodhpur. And she was going to need a really great local partner.
After all, running a boarding hostel for girls was a full-time enterprise. And though de Chollet was spending as much as six weeks of the year in India, she was based in London.
"You cannot run a project from abroad," she says. "We needed to create a local leadership that could take the project to where it needed to go."
As it happened, she'd had her eye on a promising candidate: a young man named Mahendra Sharma. They'd met a few years earlier when he was just a high school student. He was the nephew of Veerni's accountant in Jodhpur — a city kid who was good with computers and looking for part-time work because his father had recently died and his mother needed support. De Chollet hired him to come in a few hours a week and help set up her charity's email.
Sharma's first impression of the Veerni project? "They did not know anything about the internet," he says, smiling a little.
De Chollet's first impression of Sharma?
"Well, he was a very shy young man — quite self-effacing."
De Chollet was working with a more experienced man to recruit girls for the new boarding hostel, but he quit. That guy told Sharma that fathers in the villages were openly opposed to the idea. His meetings with them had gotten tense.
"He said to me, the villagers are too aggressive," Sharma recalls. "They have become crazy and it's a very bad idea to bring girls [to the hostel]."
Sharma, by this point a college student, was interested in taking on the challenge. He figured the charity had built up so much good will in the villages by now. If he could just sit with these fathers and talk it through. So night after night he did, fielding questions like: Why don't you take our boys to be educated. Why are you taking the girls?
"They would say, "What's the point? [The girls] are not going to remain with us. They'll go to their in-laws and if they're over-educated then it will be very difficult for us to get a groom for them."
Well, Sharma would answer, with an education, a girl can get a job and bring money into the in-laws house. In-laws would want that.
By the end of that first recruiting effort in 2005, the fathers of 39 girls had come around. It was short of the goal. De Chollet had raised enough money to support 60 girls, thanks to years of work with an early partner from Switzerland named Ann Vincent.
Still says Sharma, under the circumstances, "39 felt like a very good number!"
And he decided the Veerni Institute was his calling. No one was more surprised than Sharma. His family had raised him to believe that as a member of the Brahmin caste it was his duty to choose of life of service. But he'd always figured he'd become a doctor.
Now he concluded that he could make a much bigger impact by dedicating himself to the Veerni Institute: "I hadn't seen anyone who was doing this kind of work."
He switched his plan of studies. Today, at 30 and officially the director of the Veerni Institute, Sharma has master's degrees in social science and social work and is working on a Ph.D in rural development studies.
That education has been helpful. But, he says, the biggest learning curve was cultural. Many of the villagers served by Veerni belong to India's historically marginalized castes. And they were sometimes wary of Sharma, expecting that as Brahmin he would likely treat them with contempt.
So he learned to make an extra effort to make clear he understands he's no better than them — never wearing sunglasses so he can look everyone in the eye, accepting any drinks offered "even if I don't want water at that particular time" to avoid creating the impression that he considers the villagers "untouchable."
The legacy of India's former caste system created other, more worrisome predicaments for Veerni. The institute was also working with plenty of low-income villagers who belong to the region's historically dominant caste — the Rajputs. Early on, when Rajput fathers found out their daughters would share quarters with "lower" caste girls, many of them threatened to pull their daughters out.
Go ahead, said Sharma. More than 10 fathers made good on the threat.
But over the years the academic achievements of girls at Veerni have changed the villagers' views.
Sharma had felt that even if the girls did not perform well on exams, Veerni would do a service by housing them for a few years. In their own homes they were treated so poorly — given less food then their brothers, made to do the heaviest chores, like carrying heavy buckets of water from the well.
"Just having their separate bed, milk in the morning, fruit in the afternoon, would be so entirely different for them," he says.
But this past year, Sharma was thrilled when for the first time, every single girl in the program passed her final exam, including newcomers who had arrived well below grade-level. Forty of the girls got marks higher than what Sharma himself had managed in high school.
"It gives me a complex sometimes," he says laughing.
Today parents of all castes beg to send their girls here. Veerni has enough funding for 75 girls and has to turn away nearly 300 a year.
Those cases haunt Sharma. "It's so difficult saying no to a girl," he says. "It's a kind of heartbreak for us."
And he feels saddest about those who are already married. As with so much else the nonprofit has done, Veerni's focus on child brides developed organically. Sharma wasn't trying to recruit child brides per se — just the girls who seemed most in need of help. Invariably, he'd find these were the girls who had already been married off.
As Veerni became popular, Sharma felt emboldened to propose the pledge that parents must now sign, committing to keeping their daughters in school until graduation — even if they're married.
And last year a group of fathers stunned Jacqueline de Chollet at a meeting when they asked her, how about helping us put our girls through college?
"I was just ... I was just speechless," de Chollet says. "I thought it was so fantastic."
Now, she says, the nonprofit's biggest headache is the best kind of problem: How to meet the demand they've created. "This should be scaled up. It's a model that can be replicated. We should have Veerni II, and Veerni III."
Most gratifying she says, are the reports from the mothers of the girls. When their daughters come home on break they want to be treated the same as their brothers — insisting on getting just as much food, for example. When de Chollet compares their lives to the life of that woman with the shawl all those years ago, she's overcome with admiration.
"I'm so proud of them," she says. "No way are they going to have their money taken away from them. No way. No way!"