In India, nearly half of all girls are married off to older men before they turn 18—often while they’re as young as 11 or 12. Technically, they aren’t forced to do it—but it’s so ingrained in the culture that the girls are often afraid to say no, for fear of seeming disrespectful or bringing shame upon their families. So the archaic tradition carries on, year after year, pulling young women away from their homes and schools and into motherhood before they’ve even finished puberty.
But Rekha Kalinda, a brave young girl from Bararola, may be changing the entire culture of Indian arranged marriage. When, at the age of eleven, her parents informed her that she would soon be married off, she gave them an answer they weren’t expecting: No. Raise money for this story and other stories.
“I was very angry,” Rekha told The Christian Science Monitor . “I told my father very clearly that this is my age of studying in school, and I didn’t want to marry.”
Initially, Rekha’s parents didn’t take their daughter’s choice seriously. But after she brought her case to teachers and government officials in the area, her parents began to listen—and so did everybody else.
“Children are not taken seriously in families,” Prosenjit Kundu, a government official, said. “A girl of 11.5 years who takes a decision for her own against the family members’ will – this is an enormous, courageous act.”
Since Rekha took a stand last summer, several other girls in her village have done the same, and there have been no child marriages in surrounding regions, either. Rekha and the other girls have been supported in their cause by the National Child Labor Project, a UNICEF-funded organization that provides education, leadership training, and advocacy for young girls in impoverished Indian communities. The organization helped Rekha to understand that she had a choice in the matter, and is doing the same through similar programs across India and Bangladesh.
Rekha’s simple “no” sent a message that is now spreading throughout South Asia, even reaching India’s president, who has requested a meeting with the young girl. Across the region, thousands of girls are beginning to realize that they do not need to get married against their will.
“It’s terrific how you get that ripple effect of one being brave, sticking her neck out … and then others following,” said Sarah Crowe, a UNICEF spokesperson.
Rekha is now determined to become a teacher. She may get married one day, she claims, “but not before 18 at all.” And when she does, it will be her choice.