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Girls & Women

This Indian Child Bride Was a Mother at 14, Now She's a Wrestling Champion

Neetu Sarkar was just 12 years old when she was illegally sold to a 43-year-old man. 

In a desperate attempt to flee the marriage, she almost immediately escaped and returned to her parents in her home village of Bhiwani. But she was married off once again.

By the age of 14, she was the mother of twin sons. 

Take action: Stand With Sonita: Tell World Leaders to End Child Marriage

With a husband who was unemployed, Sarkar found that just being able to feed her children and send them to school was a constant struggle.

“Initially, my parents wouldn’t let me [wrestle],” she said, in an interview with the Hindustan Times. “I used to wear a dress while wrestling. I really wanted to wrestle. Then they got me married. Then I had children. Whenever I’d see another girl wrestle, I’d feel curious. I would ask, what game is this? What are you playing?” 

“I became a mother at 14 and the family’s financial condition didn’t allow me to think about sport for the next two or three years," she said.

Even though she was just a teenager, Sarkar tried numerous jobs in her attempt to support her sons — working as a beautician, a maid, a shop clerk, tilling land, and even teaching herself to be a tailor by unstitching suits and stitching them back together. 

But it was a lucky meeting with a yoga instructor who gave her the phone number of wrestling coast Ziley Singh that changed everything for her. 

Read more: India Rules Sex With a Child Bride Is Always Rape in a Massive Win for Girls' Rights

While she had always been interested in sports, she had never considered taking them up as a means to support her family. 

But now, she was finally being given a chance. 

Sarkar began a gruelling schedule; getting up at 3 a.m., reaching her training ground in the village of Rohtak, Haryana, an hour and a half bus ride journey away, at 5:30 a.m., then training for the morning. She would return to do housework in the afternoon, before making the journey to the training ground again for her second training session of the day, and would then return to her family to help her children with their homework. 

At this point, when she began taking the sport seriously, Sarkar was still only 17 years old. 

It was far from easy, however, as she still faced backlash and ridicule from her village. 

Read more: This All-Female Motorcycle Squad Is Tackling Sexual Violence in India's 'Rape Capital'

“People would advise my husband not to let me wrestle,” she continued. “But my husband would support me. He would say, ‘You don’t even have to win; I don’t want your medal or victory. I just want you to work hard. I want you to pursue your passion’.”

By 19, Sarkar was a national medalist, winning a bronze medal at the Indian National Games in 2015. Now 21, she’s a wrestler competing on the international stage, representing India in the Junior World Championships in Brazil in 2017. 

Later that year, she took the silver medal at the Indian National Games, in Kerala. 

"When I returned to my village after winning a medal at the National Games in 2015, people garlanded and celebrated me,” Sarkar told the BBC. “The people who didn’t believe in me earlier suddenly wanted me to train their daughters.” 

Read more: These Kung Fu Nuns Are Biking Thousands of Miles to Empower Women

Sarkar’s life has seen some dramatic changes, and she now lives in a small room near the gym — which has “Wrestling is life” written on the walls — to save her the twice-daily journey. It means she can only see her sons on the weekend, but her husband has been more than willing to support her.

“He’s given me a new life,” she told the Hindustan Times. “He pulled me out of hell and brought me to heaven. I’m able to wrestle because of him. I’m away and we don’t have a usual husband-wife relationship. He’s made a huge sacrifice.” 

Sarkar, already an inspiration to many in India, now dreams of taking her success even further and winning an Olympic medal. 

India has the highest number of child brides in the world with an estimated 47% of girls married before their 18th birthday, according to Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of more than 800 different organisations fighting for the elimination of child marriage around the world. 

Read more: This Young Model Sent a Power Message During a Pakistani Bridal Fashion Show

While the legal age for marriage is 18 for women, and 21 for men, the law is difficult to police, particularly in more impoverished rural communities, where girls are still seen as an economic burden to their families and married off at a young age. 

Factors including poor educational opportunities for girls, class, and caste can limit girls in many communities to the role of daughter, wife, and mother, according to Girls Not Brides. 

Global Citizen campaigns to achieve the UN Global Goals, including gender equality. We believe that every girl, everywhere, has the right to achieve her full potential. You can join us by taking action here