For 17-year-old Payal Jangid, her fight against child marriage in her native India is personal.
The teen — who last week was recognized at the Gates Foundation Goalkeepers Awards with the Changemaker Award — has been a tireless force of change when it comes to ending the age-old practice, as it nearly happened to her.
Jangid tells PEOPLE via a translator that she was just 11 when she learned her parents had arranged for her and her sister to be married — and put a stop to it with help from local activists.
The teen says her eyes were opened to the plight of her fellow children when she met activists at school who introduced her to the idea of a bal panchayat, or child parliament, in which local kids are elected to a village council.
“I told [my parent’s plan] to the activists, who in turn shared my situation with Smt. Sumedha Kailash ji, the founder of the Bal Ashram Trust,” she says. “With her intervention and support, I protested and raised my voice against the decision of my family. Eventually, my parents relented and my marriage was called off.”
Bal Ashram was established in 1998 as a rehabilitation and training center for the Save the Childhood Movement, according to its website.
Since making sure her future remained in her own hands, Jangid has worked hard to ensure that others in her village of Hinsla have the same opportunity.
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Jangid says that in rural places like Hinsla, much of the population is uneducated, leading them to “follow age-old traditions and social evil of [child marriage], which is a crime.”
Because of this, Jangid says much of her work is rooted in teaching and making sure that people are aware of their rights.
To get her goals off the ground, Jangid began organizing protests, which led other women and children in the village to feel more comfortable voicing their concerns and opinions.
“We also speak with parents on the importance of their children regularly attending school in order to receive a formal education,” she says. “We also explain the ill effects and repercussions of child labor and child marriages to the parents so that they detest it.”
So far, she’s been extremely successful, and tells PEOPLE that her greatest accomplishment came when Hinsla became a village free of child marriage.
“It has been a leap of faith for the villagers,” she says.
Jangid, who hopes to one day become a teacher, feels “a great matter of pride and honor” in being recognized at the Goalkeepers Awards, which took place Sept. 24-25.
“This recognition has further encouraged me to continue my journey towards ensuring that children around the world are free from any form of exploitation,” she says. “As [Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi] always says, if we take care of this one generation, this generation will take care of all the generations to come.”
The annual Goalkeepers Awards comes in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UNICEF, and each year sheds a spotlight on a “new generation of leaders who are addressing the world’s major challenges,” according to its website.
Among those honored last year was 18-year-old Amika George, founder of the #FreePeriods campaign, which aims to make sure that no girl in the U.K. is living in period poverty.
- With reporting by NICK MASLOW