Establishing a new custom to protect girls and transform societal norms

Modifying societal beliefs and norms are most successful when the change comes from within the community. Such a transformation is now happening after the birth of every girl in the village of Piplantri in Rajasthan, India. Villagers plant one hundred eleven (111) trees to honor the birth of the girl. The new custom aims to counteract the prevalence of female feticide by encouraging parents and villagers to plant trees in honor of a female child. It requires that parents promise to not marry their female child before adulthood, creates a community-funded trust fund for the child, and provides the community with the necessary resources to develop. Villagers have planted over 286,000 trees which are now providing not only a new tradition but environmental sustainability. In addition, villagers have planted over 2.5 million aloe vera plants which protect the trees and provide a source of livelihood. As a result, the ratio of girls to boys in Piplantri village has increased and girls are being given an equivalent position to boys in the village. The Piplantri 111 Trees has now spread to surrounding villages, broadening the respect and protection for girls.

The tree planting custom was conceived in order to intervene in and counter popular cultural beliefs that female children lack value and drain family and community resources. A 2011 study in the British medical journal The Lancet found that over 12 million female fetuses had been aborted in the last three decades in India. Within India, the birth of girls is looked down upon and the birth of boys is preferred. The birth of a girl is often viewed as a burden in Indian villages due to the dowry system. This requires families to pay a large sum of money in order to have their daughters married. The dowry system has resulted in the societal devaluing of female babies, lower rates of education, and often marriages before a girl reaches the age of 18.

The state of Rajasthan has one of the most unequal sex ratios in India due to the prevalence of female feticide. In 2006, Shyam Sundar Paliwal was the village head in Piplantri, Rajasthan. He initiated the Piplantri 111 Trees custom after his own daughter passed away at a young age. When a girl is born, villagers in Piplantri collectively plant 111 trees. The number “111” is a holy number in Indian mythology. The trees are meant to honor and celebrate the birth of female children and concurrently support the local environment surrounding the village. When the family starts planting the 111 tress, they agree to continue to care for the trees and also sign a legal affidavit promising to fully educate their female child and prevent her marriage before the age of 18. According to the terms of the affidavit, the girl will not be married until she has received a complete education, she reaches the legal age, and the 111 trees planted in her honor are properly looked after by the family.

Apart from parental action, village members also honor the female child and invest in her future. Village members together raise a trust fund for the child of 21,000 rupees and the parents contribute 10,000 rupees. The 31,000 (approximately $520.00) rupees are secured in a fixed deposit account that the child will have access to when she reaches the age of 20. The fixed deposit account aims to guarantee that the female child will not be considered a financial burden, and will aid families’ ability to delay early marriage of their female children. The Piplantri 111Trees team regularly monitors the girl children who have been born in past years to ensure they are continuing their education and parents are abiding by the affidavit. So far, all the girls are continuing their education and remaining unmarried.

Since its’ inception, the village has planted multiple species of trees that create revenue for the village such as mango, neem, sheesham, and amla. In the first eight years of establishing the Piplantri 111 Trees custom, the villagers planted over 286,000 trees. The villagers care for the trees and protect them from termites and disease by planting aloe vera around the tree’s base. This has yielded over 2.5 million aloe vera plants. Apart from being a natural pesticide for the trees, experts were invited to train the women in harvesting aloe vera to create revenue when they process and sell it. Villagers produce and market aloe-based products such as juice and gel. The trees and aloe vera plants provide sources of livelihood and an ecologically sustainable environment for residents in Piplantri.

The program initially spread to surrounding villages such as Luhavad and Budania. The State Rajasthan Government has now declared this the “Piplantri Model” and has started promoting the same model for all villages of Rajasthan including Tasol Rajsamand, Bhuwana, Udaipur, Osav, Jhalawar and many more.

The Piplantri 111 Trees originated from within the community and is advancing the acceptance of a new tradition of valuing, protecting and educating girl children. When considering adapting such a tactic, examine traditions in your own community to determine how they may perpetuate practices that harm members of the community; how other symbols can be adapted to foster positive community change; and what community members may be willing to sustainably contribute over time to advance a new tradition. 

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

Photo Credit: Piplantri 111 Trees

What we can learn from this tactic: 

Cultural practices or religious beliefs may be at the core of harmful practices and human rights violations in your context. This is a creative tactic that is challenging a dominant and harmful belief by providing the community with an alternative, positive, celebratory ritual (also see this example of ending harmful cultural practices in Kenya). The simple act of planting trees to celebrate the birth of girl was effective in addressing attitudes about girls being burdens by transforming the event into an investment in the future. By implementing family and community support mechanisms, this tactic cultivated a new found respect for girls, teaching the community the value of having girls while preventing future harmful practices, such as early marriage. Such mechanisms included incentives for the family to maintain the trees and ensure the girl’s right to education as well as the community’s commitment through a fund which the girl can access when she is twenty years old (see how a similar incentives-based tactic in Bangladesh helps to protect the rights of children). This holistic approach has provided the community with economic opportunities, while also being environmentally sustainable.

Other kinds of human rights issues could benefit from such a multi-pronged approach and investment of resources. Consider what mechanisms would need to be in place to ensure compliance. While legally binding documents can be used to take legal recourse when the terms are violated, mechanisms which gain community support to shift values and ensure voluntary adherence may be stronger and longer lasting. Considering such longer term outcomes can help organizations tailor their tactics in a way that engages and remains respectful to the community. Identifying the larger, contextual problems that may perpetuate harmful beliefs and practices are essential for constructing comprehensive tactics that address the root causes.