Priyanka Chopra: how to build a strong girl

My latest film, Mary Kom is about to hit the screens. In it, I play one of India’s strongest women, quite literally, the only woman boxer to have won a medal in each one of the six world championships. Hers is an inspiring story of a young woman who fought the odds that were heavily stacked against her to achieve her dreams. She came from a small town but never let the lack of opportunities or any form of discrimination stop her.

With her story still ringing in my head, I set of to Chandrapur on International Youth Day at behest of UNICEF to visit a new generation of strong young Indian women who very helm of some very inspiring stories themselves.

The girls I met are part of the Building Young Futures programme or Deepshikha as it is locally known, run in partnership with UNICEF, Barclays and the Government of Maharashtra. The programme is determined to challenge the difficulties many girls are facing across India, providing girls with the knowledge and skills they need to become strong financially independent women and also very importantly, to become the agents for change and development in their communities.

In my eight years as a UNICEF Ambassador championing the cause of adolescent girls, I am so proud of the work we’ve been able to do together. I passionately believe that young people are bursting with potential… that they can transform society.

But they need help… we need to urgently invest in their future and help them realise their potential and I am determined to help make that happen. Consider the numbers and you will see why this is such a critical requirement – There are 1.2 billion adolescents in the world today of which 243 million of them are in India.

I remember the dreams I had when I was a teenager. With support, opportunities and a lot of hard work I’ve been able to make them happen. But I know that many youngsters aren’t this lucky. In Maharashtra, like many other states in India, girls are held back by not completing education, early marriage, ignorance around health issues and lack of financial understanding and having a voice for decision making.

We owe them a better life which in itself will have a positive impact on our nation and society as a whole…. If we can educate more girls, provide them with employment opportunities and give them the right life skills, their worlds open up! Reports estimate our GDP could be 4.4% higher .

Priyanka enjoys a girls empowerment game with Deepshika-Building Young Futures. (c) UNICEF/2014/Dhiraj Singh
Priyanka enjoys a girls empowerment game with Deepshika-Building Young Futures.
(c) UNICEF/2014/Dhiraj Singh

As I sat in a circle with the girls playing a team game about ‘working together and sharing responsibilities’, delegating and planning, I could see the true impact of this programme. Games like these alongside Barclays volunteers sharing their financial expertise, the tangible like skill training etc. are what help the girls set up their businesses, plan and develop enterprises.

At the end of the session, the girls came together to sing an anthem created especially for them about how ‘they are taking charge’. I promise you… it was overawed! I had goose pimples just listening to the power and determination in their voices. They had overcome so many hardships and yet they were ready to take on new challenges and improve the quality of life for themselves and everyone around them. I was truly inspired.

I was invited to their marketplace to see the businesses some of the girls have set up with their new found business and saving skills – bags, groceries, saris and sanitary napkins – each a story of a girl transformed, taking charge of her life and starting something of larger social relevance. It was truly a shopping trip with a difference.

So what are the ingredients for a strong girl? How can we make sure that ‘all girls and boys can make their own name and fate and be independent’, as one girl told me.

Here’s my list:
• Teach a young adult not what to think but HOW to think
• Encourage a young person to dare to believe because she has the skills to realise her dreams
• Foster a young girls confidence to voice her own opinions and solve her own problems
• Instil an understanding of savings, money and business so she may become financially independent
• Nurture an interest in their community so their impacts can be shared

Alongside all this… add a bit of magic… encouraging the girls to share their new power and use it to do good for the community. These girls go out and teach other girls and the ripple of empowerment spreads. It’s a real, tangible, positive effect where is there for all to see.

Priyanka tries her hand at sewing with Sadhana. (c) UNICEF/2014/Dhiraj Singh
Priyanka tries her hand at sewing with Sadhana. (c) UNICEF/2014/Dhiraj Singh

I walked down the path in a quiet village in the middle of nowhere; it is easy to see how a girl can get lost… lost for life! I was there to meet Sadhana, 23, who had invited me into her home. She was far from lost. One of 5 sisters, her parents had initially been indifferent and felt burdened by them. The girls were not expected to have a future. Her father was paralysed and was not able to take care of the family and that’s where his young daughter stepped in…

Today Sadhana realising her rights as a woman and she is providing for her parents and her family, saving, building a tailoring business herself, planning a community business and also strengthening her village. Her strength is palpable – she is taking centre stage. As I was leaving her father told me that she had become the son he never had and I said to him that he didn’t need a son… he already had his daughters!

Sadhana told me “I learnt that I cannot do anything sitting at home, I must come out and take charge of my own destiny”

I thought that was a great message for young people everywhere on this international youth day. With ‘Building Young Futures’ and UNICEF’s involvement these positive stories and messages will only grow in number.

Written for CNN

Bollywood Actress, International Recording Artist and UNICEF India Ambassador Priyanka Chopra met with young women in Chandrapur, India, to mark International Youth Day and to witness how their lives are being transformed through the Building Young Futures programme, which is run in partnership with Barclays. To see more visit

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