India has the largest number of child brides in the world with global nonprofit Girls Not Brides estimating that nearly 47 percent of girls are married before their 18th birthday. Girls living in rural areas are more likely to become child brides than those in urban areas. At an age of 13, when the dreams of most kids begin to take shape, everything seemed to end for Neetu Sarkar who was married to a mentally challenged man three times her age.
However, the marriage barely lasted a week as Neetu ran away from her in-laws home as her father-in-law tried to abuse her. Though angered by the treatment of the in-laws, Neetu’s parents married her off again to avoid backlash from society. This time she was married to an unemployed man, but one who was kind and supported her. She became a mother of twins at the age of 14. While this would have signalled the end for any other girl, for Neetu it was just the beginning.
Neetu had a knack for sports and was fascinated with wrestling ever since she was a child. She was inspired to take up wrestling as a career after watching a TV coverage of the 2010 Commonwealth Games. She decided to go to the male-dominated ‘akhara’ but was banned from entering the place. Her mother-in-law was reluctant too but Neetu didn’t let anything stand in her way.
Her dreams were realized in 2011 when she met the wrestling coach Ziley Singh and Neetu expressed her desire to learn wrestling. Singh encouraged her by telling her that if Mary Kom could win a medal after motherhood, then so could she. This gave Neetu a lot of hope and she began training hard. Every day, she would wake at 3 am, travel for one and a half hours to the stadium in Rohtak to practice and return home at 9 pm.
Her efforts eventually bore fruit and she went on to win medals at many national and international events. She won her first bronze medal at the National Games in 2014. She also won a silver medal in the 35th National Games in Kerala and represented the country at the World Junior Wrestling Championships in Brazil. The folks in her village are proud of her achievements and she has cemented her status as the local hero of the village. In spite of the financial constraints and objection from society, Neetu’s story gives people the courage to realise their dreams no matter how difficult the situation is.