This Child Bride Is Tackling Gender Inequality on the Mat
Neetu Sarkar became a child bride when she was 13 years old.
Raised in a conservative village in Haryana, India, she was forced to marry a 43-year-old mentally challenged man. Within the first week, her father-in law tried to rape her, and she ran away from the marriage.
Now 21 and mother to twin boys, Sarkar is one of India’s rising wrestling stars.
But it hasn’t been an easy journey.
Sarkar had a fascination with wrestling since childhood, but “as things went awry,” her dreams were put on the back burner.
“Initially, my folks wouldn’t let me [fight], I used to wear a dress while wrestling,” Sarkar told the Hindustan Times in a video. “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?’ ”
Sarkar was quickly remarried, and the couple had twin boys. She was 14 years old and wanted to turn her love for wrestling into a means of supporting her family. Her second husband was unemployed, and the family lived off her mother-in-law’s pension to support their home and send the boys to school. Because of their financial situation, wrestling would have to wait. Sarkar went to work tilling fields, working in a gift shop, and tailoring clothes.
She constantly faced opposition. She was barred from practicing in her home village’s local akhara—the training center for male wrestlers—for being a woman. Instead, she would sneak out of the house at 3 a.m. to go running before anyone woke up and noticed she was gone.
Her story is one of many that paint a picture of tradition overruling law. Child marriage has been illegal in India since 1929; in 1978, the legal marrying age for girls was raised from 15 to 18. Penalties were later instituted for adult men who married underage girls or anyone who assisted in the arrangement.
According to UNICEF, India has the most child brides of any country in the world. It’s estimated that nearly 50 percent of Indian girls are married before they turn 18. Underage marriage is a growing problem in Sarkar’s home state of Haryana owing to a cultural preference for male children, turning women into a commodity and increasing financial incentives for poor families to arrange marriages.
But Sarkar’s husband supported her dreams.
“People would advise my husband not to let me wrestle. But my husband would support me,” she said. “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.’ ”
And that she did. Sarkar commutes six hours round trip daily to the Chotu Ram Stadium in Rohtak. Her day begins at 3 a.m., and she returns home by 9 p.m. She takes the bus and poses as a student to receive a discount. The money saved, she says, goes toward buying a glass of juice.
“The body will mold the way you want it,” she said.
Sarkar finally headed to the mat in 2011 when she was introduced to wrestling coach Ziley Singh. Motherhood and her past weren’t going to be a problem, he told her.
“If Mary Kom can win a medal in the Olympics after motherhood, why can’t you?” he said. Kom is a five-time World Amateur Boxing champion from India.
In 2014, Sarkar won her first national medal.
“She never wastes time,” her coach Mandeep Singh told the NDTV television station. “She works very hard at her training; if she can improve her technique, the results will show.”
When she returned to her village after that first win, the very elders who barred her from training at the wrestling center welcomed her home as a local hero.
“Ours is a small village, but now it has got recognition because of Sarkar’s achievements,” her husband, Sanjay, told the Hindustan Times.
In August, she represented India at the Junior World Championships in Brazil. She was eliminated in the first round, but she’s not giving up.
“People who would say things against me and my passion for wrestling are now asking me to teach their own daughters,” Sarkar said in the Hindustan Times. “Take them with you, they say. Raise them like you.”