Rekha Kalindi, 12, always believed education would take her places but she didn’t realise it would happen so soon.
It was just over a month ago that she was featured in HT on April 12 (12-yr-old succeeds where govt failed, stops child marriages). The girl who said ‘I won’t’ to child marriage has now become an international poster child, with 11,000 web references and an invitation to Rashtrapati Bhawan to meet President Pratibha Patil.
On Thursday, the girl who used to roll bidis with her five siblings — in a one-room hutment with no electricity, toilet or running water — in West Bengal’s Purulia district just two years ago met Patil.
Having read the HT report on how the girl from a village with the lowest female literacy rate (18.4 per cent) in the country had gone against tradition to say no to child marriage and inspired others to do the same, the President invited Rekha and two other girls — Afsana Khatun and Sunita Mahato (both 13) — who chose to study rather than marry.
Afsana and Sunita have led lives very similar to Rekha’s. While Sunita was a bidi-roller, Afsana made sweets at home for sale though hawkers in the neighbouring towns of Purulia.
On Thursday, the President lauded their courage and called them messengers of social change.
“Education is not enough. We also need social empowerment to bring about change. It’s very good the government has managed to reach children through the National Child Labour Project (NCLP) that helps remove social evils,” said Patil.
The President also invited them to lunch. “We had fish curry, shahi paneer and many vegetables with rice, naan and curd. I ate a lot. I’ve never had ice-cream before but then I’ve never travelled in a train either,” said Sunita.
Afsana, who had never left her village, was wonder-struck. “We saw the Mughal Gardens and Rashtrapati Bhawan on Wednesday. On Thursday, we had lunch here. I never imagined this was possible,” she said.
From the shy, quiet girl from a month ago, Rekha has transformed into a confident child who has since addressed a rally of 6,000 bidi workers and entreated them to not marry off their daughters before they turn 18.
“We didn’t quite expect them to take her seriously but they listened. Many even clapped. It’s a beginning. Since these three girls revolted, there has been no child marriage in the region. We are keeping a very close watch and want to stamp out this tradition by 2010,” said Prosenjit Kundu, assistant labour commissioner of, Purulia, who accompanied the children to Delhi.