In a village with the lowest female literacy in the country, a 12-year-old bidi-roller has done what the government has been trying for years — stopped child marriage.
Rekha Kalindi (12) has become a household name in her district for refusing to get married in November last year. “Since Rekha’s revolt, there’s been no child marriage in the village,” said Prosenjit Kundu, assistant labour commissioner, Purulia, West Bengal government. “Now all girls want to be like her and some others, like Afsana Khatoon (13) from a neighbouring village, also said no.”
Rekha seems an unlikely hero. The frail girl lives in a one-room home with seven others in Bararola village in the Jhalda-2 block of West Bengal’s Purulia district. Her home has no electricity, no running water and no toilet.
She’s never watched a film — even the names Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan draw a blank — or owned a toy. “We don’t play. Little children in nursery play,” says the 12-year-old, who looks no older than 7.
She and her friends spend their evenings collecting firewood and tendu leaves in the forest to sell at the weekly market in Kotshila town, seven kilometres away.
Rekha belongs to the Kalindi tribe, a scheduled tribe in which girls are traditionally married at the age of 12. “My sister Jyotsna, now 15, got married at 12 and has already had four dead babies. She now lives with her second husband because the first one left her. Still, my parents wanted me to also get married but I said no, I want to study. They finally agreed,” said Rekha.
Though her father Jagdish Kalindi stopped her food, water and soap for some days, she stood firm and he finally came around. “We told our teacher that Rekha wanted to study and together we made her baba (father) agree. We will all marry after turning 18,” said her friend, classmate and neighbour Budhamani Kalindi (12). Forty per cent of the world’s child marriages take place in India, leading to 78,000 women dying at childbirth each year.
According to UNICEF, teenage pregnancy and motherhood is nine times higher among women with no education than among women with 12 or more years of education.
The Jhalda-II block in Purulia has among the lowest literary in India. According to the 2001 census, the literacy rate at Jhalda-II block was 18.4 per cent, way below the Purulia district average of 57 or the state average of 74 per cent. Scheduled castes and tribes constitute 36 per cent of the 2.5 million population.
The third child among three brothers and three sisters, Rekha started helping her family earn a living by rolling bidis from the age of 5. “We worked at home to help Baba and were paid Rs 30 per 1,000 sticks rolled,” she said. That was before 2006, the year her village got a National Child Labour Project (NCLP) school to give basic education to former child labourers. “Under the NCLP project, all students in its 90 schools get a monthly stipend of Rs 100 and, in partnership with UNICEF’s Child Activist Project, information about child rights, early marriage, education, gender equality, etc,” says Kundu.
Students are obviously learning. After just two years of school, Rekha decided she did not want her sister’s life. “The government and civil society have been trying to stop child marriage for years but not getting results because they are outsiders. We’re now using schools to enlighten children and getting results,” said Krishnendu Gupta, master trainer, NCLP schools, Purulia district.