When we hear stories out of India, they are often the kind featuring some kind of gender violence, oppression and inequality, especially in relation to women and children. Granted, there are some major injustices being overlooked in a country of over 1 billion people, and we should be vigilant to understand that gender equality is not going to be reached by ignoring a problem or dumbing down its existence. In many cases, problems have to be tackled head on. That is exactly what one Indian woman has done and has managed to give herself the gift of life that society was not able to.
Neetu Sarkar is 21, but already she has seen an entire lifetime of experience that would normally be exhibited in someone much older than her. The young woman from the conservative town of Haryana had a childhood vastly different to other teen girls. At the age of 13 she was forced to marry a 43 year old man, because her parents could no longer afford to raise her. This is common practice in poverty-stricken areas where child marriage is rife.
Within the first week of that marriage, her father-in-law tried to rape her so she ran away, but that angered her family. At the age of 14 she was married off again and soon after gave birth to twin sons. Can you imagine just being in the early stages of your teen life and bearing TWO children?!?
Thankfully her second husband was a kind man who loved and supported her.
But despite being married as a way to escape poverty, her and her husband could not afford to send their children to school and they had to rely on the mother-in-law’s pension money to survive.
Neetu told the Hindustan Times that she decided to channel her energy into a sport that she had an obsession with when she was younger in order to earn money for her family. In 2011 she met wrestling coach Ziley Singh, who agreed to help train her.
“If Mary Kom can win a medal in the Olympics after motherhood, why can’t you?” he told her. Mary Kom is a five-time World Amateur Boxing champion and Olympic medalist from India, who had a movie made about her life starring Priyanka Chopra.
“Initially, my folks wouldn’t let me [fight], I used to wear a dress while wrestling. I really wanted to wrestle. Then they got me married. Then I had children. Whenever I’d see another girl wrestle, I’d feel curious. I would ask, ‘What game is this? What are you playing?’” she shared.
“I had a fascination for sport since my childhood, but as things went awry I didn’t get a chance to pursue it. I became a mother at 14 and the family’s financial condition didn’t allow me to think about sport for the next two-three years,” she said.
But her determination to help her family escape a life of poverty soon resulted in her taking drastic measures to live out her dream of becoming a wrestler. She was initially banned from training in the local gym as it was only reserved for men. So being the resourceful woman she was, Neetu would go to the gym at 3am before anyone else turned up, and would be long gone before anyone could know she was there.
Despite cultural stigma surrounding women in certain parts of India, especially in conservative areas, Neetu’s husband supported her dream and it made all the difference in her journey.
“People would advise my husband not to let me wrestle. But my husband would support me. He would say, ‘You don’t even have to win; I don’t want your medal or victory. I just want you to work hard. I want you to pursue your passion.'” she said.
Her training paid off eventually because in 2014, Neetu won her first medal in the Nationals. In addition to this, she won a silver medal at the Indian National Games this year and represented India at the Junior World Championships in Brazil in August.
Her coach Mandeeph Singh has nothing but praise for the female prodigy defying the odds to become a role model for girls everywhere.
“She never wastes time. She works very hard at her training; if she can improve her technique, the results will show,” he told NDTV News.
Neetu has now become a hometown hero for her achievements, something of which her husband is incredibly proud.
“Ours is a small village, but now it has got recognition because of Neetu’s achievements,” he said.
Her story is nothing short of incredible, especially when you consider how pervasive child marriage is in India even today. Although it has been illegal in the country since 1929, UNICEF estimates that India has the most child brides of any country in the world. In 1978, the legal marrying age for girls was raised from 15 to 18. Penalties were later instituted for adult men who married underage girls or anyone who assisted in the arrangement, but that doesn’t always deter families from allowing it to happen as there is a lot of secrecy involved.
In fact the International Center for Research on Women shares data suggesting nearly 50% of Indian girls are married before he age of 18. In Neetu’s home town Haryana, child marriage is a growing problem as cultural stigma places importance on men over women because of the high rates of poverty. Child marriage happens more often in rural areas where often girls are married before they hit puberty, says a report from the Council on Foreign Relations.
This gives you an idea of the odds Neetu was up against, and despite having to battle through a tough ordeal before she even became an adult, she now wants to use her experience to help other women.
“People who would say things against me and my passion for wrestling are now asking me to teach their own daughters. Take them with you, they say. Raise them like you,” she said.
We hope stories like Neetu’s will give you hope to endure and conquer whatever it is that you are currently going through.