Photo: V.V. Krishnan
THE BRAVE ONES: President Pratibha Patil with Sunita Mahato, Afsana Khatun and Rekha Kalindi who resisted early marriage to pursue education, during an interaction at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on Thursday. —
NEW DELHI: Their courage to say no and conviction to push for their rights have made Rekha Kalindi, Sunita Mahato and Afsana Khatun role models for hundreds of young girls fighting the age-old practice of child marriage.
The otherwise shy and reserved teenagers from the backward and poverty-stricken Purulia district in West Bengal shed their inhibitions when they narrated their stories at the Rashtrapati Bhavan here on Thursday.
Impressed by their courage to confront social evils, President Pratibha Patil rewarded the girls with a meeting, lavished praise on them and presented a cash purse of Rs.10,000 each to help them pursue education.
“Ms. Patil was very happy that the girls had shown courage to resist child marriage and their parents were convinced and accepted the advice of teachers and friends. She observed that the girls’ courage has had a positive effect on their communities and was leading to more girls resisting child marriage. The President felt that social evils could only be brought to an end through more awareness,” a Rashtrapati Bhavan official said.
The three girls said they were raring to pursue their dreams. While Afsana wants to become a doctor, Rekha and Sunita want to become teachers and help women in their community to learn the three Rs. “They come from areas that have the lowest female literacy rates in the country and, having realised the importance of education, they want to help more girls and women,” said Prosenjit Kundu, Project Director of the National Child Labour Project, which runs a school where three are now enrolled.
It was Mr. Kundu who Afsana and her friends approached to save her from being married off. “Initially, it was very difficult to convince the parents. Afsana’s was the first case and once we managed to get her wedding called off, she became an example for the others.
“Parents are often forced to marry off their minor children because of societal pressure. If the neighbour’s child is married off at a certain age, they too are compelled to follow suit,” Mr. Kundu said.
The girls were unanimous in their resolve to complete school. “Afsana’s older sister Jyotsna was married off at 11 and she subsequently had four children, who unfortunately did not survive. She had seen her suffer. Similarly, Rekha and Sunita too have siblings married off at a young age. These marriages too have had an impact on their minds,” said Mr. Kundu.
He said that since the mothers of these three girls were married off early and knew the pitfalls, they were easier to convince. “We spoke to their mothers first. They helped us bring the rest of the family around,” he said.