JHALDA II, India, July 17, 2009— -- She's been called a leader and an icon, and her actions are considered revolutionary – all because 13-year-old Rekha Kalindi refused to be married off and wanted to attend school instead.
That act of defiance has rippled through Rekha's village and throughout India. Because of her stubborn refusal to give in to her parents' demands, other girls in the village have also balked at early marriages.
Rekha's story gained national attention with India's newspapers hailing her for accomplishing change that the India government was incapable of making. She has become so popular that the president of India requested to meet her this past spring.
Rarely has parental disobedience been so richly praised.
Raised in one of India's poorest village, Rekha has worked for most of her short life. Like her father, she helped to support her family by rolling a type of cigarette called beedi. Then two years ago, a government non-profit program plucked her from a life of child labor to enroll her in special school.
Along with learning the standard classes, Rekha and dozens of other former child laborers were also taught leadership skills. The school, part of a UNICEF program, was free of charge so that families would not remove children from the program due to cost.
It was from these leadership classes that Rekha gained the strength to defy her family, her village and change her future. And with this decision, she inspired a chain reaction among her friends and throughout her village.
Rekha is a slight girl - maybe 4 feet tall – with long dark hair loosely pulled back in a ponytail. A huge smile appears when talks about school. She fell in love with learning and excelled in her classes which is why she was devastated when her parents told her last year at the age of 12 that it was time for her to get married.
India's Child Marriage Prohibition Act makes it illegal for girls below the age of 18 and boys below 21 to marry, but the law is rarely enforced. Child marriage is a tradition in many parts of India, partly because poor families no longer must provide for their married daughters.
Rekha's village, Jhalda II, is a seven-hour drive from Kolkata and has one of India's highest female illiteracy rates. As is the fate of many girls here, Rekha's parents pulled her from school after they began arrangements for the wedding. No point in learning since she would soon be a bride.
"I felt very sad because my best friends were going to school," said Rekha, speaking in Bengali through an interpreter. "I was feeling very sad because I was captive in my home."
So Rekha did the unthinkable. She said "no."
Her parents, shocked by her behavior, withheld her food for nearly two weeks.
Her mother, Manaka Kalindi, said she was angry that her daughter had defied her.
"Parents have rights to (control) their children," she said.
Girl Refuses Child Marriage, Inspires Nation
Rekha remained defiant and enlisted help. Her teachers, classmates and a government official moved by her determination, marched down the small dusty street to her parent's home, asking them to reconsider.
Her parents, recognizing their child's desires and the external pressures they had never previously experienced, finally conceded: Rekha would not marry. More importantly, she would attend school.
"Being within that community and being from such a poor family, a tiny girl, is thinking of setting her own future and own destiny by her own will. That is unthinkable previously," said Prosenjit Kundu, Project Director of National Child Labor Project in Purulia.
Along with wanting to attend school, Rekha wanted to avoid early marriage because of the physical dangers involved in it. Early marriage leads to early pregnancy, which leads to low birth rates and high rates of maternal mortality. Rekha knows the dangers all too well: her older sister was married at the age of 11, suffered four miscarriages and can no longer have children.
"Child marriage contributes largely to the incidences of maternal mortality, infant mortality, increases the fertility period of a woman and that leads to larger families, which again, in turn, leads to poverty," explained Paramita Neogi, a child protection officer for UNICEF in Rekha's state of West Bengal. "When there [is] large number of children in the family, then a lot of children they don't go to school, there's no education, there's low literacy level and that again leads to early marriage. So it's like a vicious cycle."
Rekha has not only changed her fate, but also the cycle within her own family. Her mother made the bold statement that her children will not suffer the fate of many villagers.
"I will send all of our daughters and sons to school and will give up the idea of early marriage for children altogether," she said.
Rekha, a Young Civil Activist
Since returning to school, Rekha has also become civil activist. She and her classmates - who also refused to become child brides – walk with her through the farming community and give lectures at community meetings urging other families to oppose child marriage. And Rekha's efforts are paying off. In the past wedding season, there were no child marriages in her village.
Rekha shrugs off her notoriety.
"I'm more interested in the action," she said. "We are confident that any marriage that is arranged, anyone who arranges marriage, I'm ready to oppose the parents, along with the teachers and friends, to stop the marriage."
Her small act of rebellion changed her life, her village and now, she hopes, will change an entire nation.