Why this is no country for women

India has the highest number of child brides in the world

Mala’s story haunts me to this day. If you have the heart, read on.

The 16-year-old lives in a small village in Gyanpur, in eastern Uttar Pradesh. On a visit to an NGO-run knowledge centre, I saw Mala happily seated in a class full of women of various ages. Some were old enough to be her grandmother, their faces wrinkled and worn out by the vestiges of time. The glint in their eyes was unmissable as they clearly lived for this time of the day when they had a chance to learn.

Their teacher, 21-year-old Sumitra, was their window to the world. Not only did she teach them to recognise letters and numbers, her job also extended beyond the classroom.

To get all these 17 women under one roof was a battle she had to fight on a daily basis. Sumitra had to wait for them in the fields, go to their huts and talk to their families into getting them to class daily.

Mala caught my attention as I walked into the classroom. As soon as Sumitra was done with her lessons, the other students went up and huddled around Mala with their assignments. It was almost as if she was the second-in-command after Sumitra.

‘Why don’t you go up and talk to her? She doesn’t belong here. Her intelligence surpasses ours,’ Sumitra told me. As I approached Mala, I was given a chair to sit. I insisted that Mala, who was seated on the floor, be given one too. After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, Sumitra told me that Mala could neither stand nor walk. As my gaze shifted downward, I realised Mala had no legs.

‘Learning comes easily to me. That’s the only thing I am good at. I am not so good at household chores. Sometimes, my mother thinks I won’t get a groom and my life will be doomed. It already is,’ Mala said.

It seemed that she had accepted her reality. I asked her what she would like to be when she grows up. She looked at Sumitra and then looked at me and said, ‘I want to teach women. I want to be like Sumitra madam.’

Mala’s life was once relatively easier. She was provided a wheelchair by a government-run hospital, but her father soon sold it off for Rs 2,500 to fund his drinking habit.

‘On the nights it rains, I have a bigger problem of going to the fields to relieve myself. I have to drag my torso as it is too much for my frail mother to pick me up,’ Mala said.

When our conversation ended and it was time for Mala to go home, a few women appeared almost on cue out of nowhere. They carried her down the stairs, and then lifted her up on their shoulders to carry her home.

‘We couldn’t let Mala sit at her home. She belongs in this classroom. So, this is the least we could do,’ said Sumitra, as I stood there in astonishment.

Sumitra’s journey into being a teacher was not an easy one either. A topper, she passed the 10th grade with flying colours. She had always wanted to become a teacher. But, the day she returned home to announce the news to her mother, she was instead welcomed by strange faces.

‘They are a good family. After your father passed away, there is no one to look after us and now you are growing up,’ her mother told her, never once bothering about her daughter’s consent.

‘Don’t worry, he will support your education,’ her mother assured her. But that was not to be. Soon after marriage, Sumitra was pushed into the dark corners of her husband’s house, yoked endlessly to domestic chores.

At times, her in-laws or husband would lock her inside a room and beat her up for no apparent reason. The abuse worsened after she gave birth to a son, until one day it became so intolerable that Sumitra fled with her child to her mother’s home, never to return again to her husband.

‘I am breathing now. It’s hard to believe I am back in school and now I am teaching other women too,’ Sumitra told me.

However, the mere thought of Mala and the grave fate that most likely awaited her, dampened her spirits. ‘She is going to get married in two months to a man she has never seen. And, there is nothing anyone can do about it.’

Mala’s story begins in a small village. And, it ends there. As does Sumitra’s. However, their courage to dream and stand up for their convictions is an inspirational tale that needs to be told time and again across the length and breadth of the country.

According to a 2015 Oxfam study, India houses 287 million illiterate adults. 48% of the students who drop out of school are girls. UNESCO puts the number of child brides in our country at above 24 million, which is the highest in the world.

Indeed, as Didier Levy says in ‘Shantaram’, “the real India starts where the streetlights end”.