Who knew a gourd could unlock a better future for rural Indian girls

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Finally today, a story about gardening. Monika Barman in rural India who grows vegetables in a tiny rooftop garden. She's part of a program to empower women in villages across west Bengal. She's also the subject of Megan Mylan's new film, "After My Garden Grows." I asked Mylan to describe Monika's hometown.

Megan Mylan: It's a very picturesque, small village, like pull up your village flashcard and it's there. It's a very lovely place if you have a ticket out. The families living there are dealing with the whole ball of wax of poverty and landlessness, poor nutrition and, particularly for girls, the added issues of access to education and child marriage. There's a lot going on as these families struggle to survive.

Werman: Right, a lot of struggles. I was actually surprised to see how openly frustrated and even angry these young women are about some of the conditions of life they face.

Mylan: The girls that you see in the film are becoming quite aware that the legal age of marriage is 18, that they have a right to stay in school, that they have the right to inherit land. Particularly Monika, our main character, is just such a present, feisty 16 year old. I feel like when you see her parents are actively searching for a husband to marry her you just have this, I hope, gut reaction of a future just closing down.

Werman: Map it out for us Megan, getting girls to grow food to farm, how does that keep them from getting married off in early age? Connect the dots for us.

Mylan: It's not an obvious thing. Why would taking a gourd to market change your future? These challenges are really economic, they're tradition and economic all rolled in together. What can happen with just the bit of sale that happens when these girls grow gourds or pumpkins or whatever they might sell at market is that they make just enough money that they might be able to pay school fees and often their fathers feel like they can risk delaying their marriage a bit and that's everything.

Werman: There is this amazing scene in the market where Monika goes to sell that one gourd she gets off her rooftop garden and she's holding those 20 rupees in her hand like it's gold. What was it like for her to be, it seemed, the only woman selling goods in such a place?

Mylan: Exactly. It's just not tradition, business is men's work. She goes with her father and, you know, when you spend time with her inside the compound - their houses are a series of three little buildings - and she's surrounded by all the other women, she seems so strong and bold. She wasn't a shrinking violet at the market but it was clear she was odd woman out.

Werman: What do you think Monika's future is going to be like?

Mylan: On the first level, her life already has changed. She's already aware that she should have different options. But I really genuinely believe that the time is really ripe, the conversation is happening internationally and in India, focusing on what an amazing impact you can make with even a small investment in the future of a girl.

Werman: Who knew so much depends on a gourd. Megan Mylan, Academy Award winning director of the new film, "After My Garden Grows." Thanks for speaking with us, Megan.

Mylan: Thanks so much Marco.

Marco Werman: Full disclosure, my colleague here at The World, Sonia Narang, was in charge of sound for the film and we leave you with just a small sample of the music in the documentary. It features Prasanna, a guitarist and major figure in south Indian classical or carnatic music. From our studios at WGBH, I'm Marco Werman. Thank you for being with us.

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