Rekha Kalindi’s journey begins in the remote village she was born, where “when a girl is born it’s always bad news”. As is tradition in these parts of the country, her mother tried to force her into getting married at the age of 11. When she resisted she was violently beaten up and starved for days.
Her memoir, Strength to Say No, is about how she endured the poison of traditional patriarchal practices and became an icon for women’s rights by the age of 18. It was a fight which won her national recognition, and recently, after the book was published by Penguin, sparked off a movement on social media.
Rekha’s narrative on her fight against child marriage is co-authored by Mouhssine Ennaimi, a French journalist who has been working in India over the past five years. Ennaimi feels most people don’t have the luxury of choice despite having the law on their side and that these are “just two voices” out of more than a billion .
“Generations end up duplicating the mistakes of the past because it is easier to follow than to innovate ... We need more people like Rekha to make a difference and to start thinking outside of the box, no matter how challenging the cost is socially,” he says.
Let’s now hear from the young icon who bravely stood up against age-old oppressive customs, something which even elected governments frequently shy away from. Here are excerpts from an interview.
How does it feel to be an icon for women’s rights at such a tender age?
Wonderful! I feel grateful and overwhelmed when I hear teachers telling their students to be like me. I tell my friends to stand on their own feet and follow their hearts. Marriage can wait. Earlier, in villages like mine, little girls would unquestioningly be married off. They were never encouraged to study. If I can do my bit to change that, I will consider my job done.
What was the hardest part of your struggle, your fight against society or against your own parents who deprived you of food when you spoke out?
My parents insisted that I marry, but I said no and stood my ground firmly. It was difficult for me personally as well as from a societal point of view, but I mustered the courage to stand up for myself only because my teachers gave me their full support. Now my family understands and supports me.
Do you feel that a day will come when child marriages will cease to exist?
Yes, of course. It will take time, but there will be more and more girls who will raise their voice against it. My uncle’s daughters, for instance, have refused to get married until they complete their education. Thanks to television and newspapers, people today are more aware of social ills like child marriage, and they understand that it is wrong.
What changes have you seen in your own village after your victory?
A lot has changed. We went door-to- door campaigning for the girl child’s right to education and a better life. We have made them aware of the dangers of child marriage and early pregnancy. People in my village can see reason in our argument. Even elderly people, who were expected to be conservative, have been encouraging me.
Do you feel that there is a lot on your shoulders now that you are recognised as a voice for change?
Yes, I do feel more responsible because I realise young girls look up to me. It is my duty to spread awareness on the importance of education in securing independence for the girl child.
In Nissim Ezekiel’s classic poem, Night of the Scorpion, the peasants externalised the forces of evil, searching for the scorpion, and for karmic causes, while the woman who was stung lay writhing in pain.
For Rekha, the fight against the poison started from within.
“The Strength to Say No: One Girl’s Fight Against Against Forced Marriage” has been translated from French by Sarah Lawson and is co-written by Rekha Kalindi and Mouhssine Ennaimi.