The one who got away
ADITI BHADURI, The Hindu,
She looks like any other teenager in one of the many villages in Dharmapuri district, Tamil Nadu. Large eyes, oiled hair in neat plaits and simply dressed in a salwar kameez. Docile, even frightened, her looks however belie her spirit. For this braveheart single-handedly took on her mother and grandmother, landing them in prison for trying to force her to marry on the eve of her fifteenth birthday.
Abandoned by her father some years ago, Akila and her mother had moved into her maternal grandmother’s house.
Child marriage, usually without the girl’s consent, is rampant in rural India. According to Unicef, 47 per cent of girls are married by 18 years, and 18 per cent are married by 15. Besides mandating 18 as the marriageable age for girls, the government has also introduced the free education scheme Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan to discourage child marriage.
Akila’s mother worked as domestic help and was anxious to get the young girl married early to “safeguard” her against predatory men. She found a prospective groom and fixed the match. Caught completely unawares, Akila was horrified at the development and couldn’t for a moment bear the thought of leaving her home, village, school, and friends to go live with a stranger in a new place (a neighbouring village). In school she had known that teachers did not think well of girls who dropped out to marry. She was distressed at the thought of meeting that fate.
Luckily for her, she had the contact number of the district Block Development Officer, who had once visited her school. In desperation the spunky girl called him from a public telephone and narrated her ordeal. The conscientious officer immediately had a firm talk with her mother and warned that she could be punished for the forced marriage, which was a cognisable offence.
Completely taken aback and angered by this turn of events, the mother punished Akila by starving her for two days. But, thankfully, she did call off the marriage. Braving the chastisement, Akila heaved a sigh of relief and looked forward to continuing her studies.
When I met Akila some months ago on a mellow August day, she was no longer living at home with her mother. The principal of Don Bosco College in Dharmapuri had enrolled her in the college for a Bachelor’s degree and, together with Unicef’s Dharmapuri unit, found her accommodation in a girls’ hostel. Akila’s eyes wore a haunted look and, in a halting voice, she explained why she was now in a hostel and not at home.
Her joy at stopping the wedding had been short-lived. Within a few months, her mother overcame her fear of the authorities and once more embarked on finding a match for her young daughter. This time the older women took no chances. They stopped Akila from attending school. In a poignant twist of irony, Akila’s mother forgot her own marital misfortune and placed her faith in marriage for her daughter’s future wellbeing. Confined to the house, Akila was under constant watch.
Hannah Stephen, the child consultant with Unicef in Dharmapuri, is full of admiration for the girl’s remarkable tenacity. “Any girl in Akila’s place could have been expected to buckle under pressure and give in. But not Akila. Her only goal now was to somehow get away from the clutches of her mother and grandmother and continue her studies,” she explains. Akila missed school, she missed her teachers, her friends, the books and the learning. And one fine day, the universe conspired to help her.
Speaking haltingly, Akila tells me how she found her chance one day when her mother was away at work and her grandmother fell asleep. She sneaked out of the house, went to the public phone and called the same officer as earlier. Trembling and crying, she begged him to save her from her mother, repeating all the time that she just wanted to complete school. The kind-hearted officer once more came to her rescue.
This time the district administration dealt with Akila’s mother much more severely. The mother and grandmother were made to serve a prison sentence and also fined. Akila, too, preferred to stay away from her mother. The Unicef stepped in and its Integrated Child Protection Project helped Akila find place in a girl’s hostel. After passing out of school, she entered Don Bosco College, again with help from Unicef.
For the thousands of young girls in the country who routinely face the threat of disrupted education, forced marriage leading to aborted dreams and long-term subjugation, Akila is proving to be an inspiring role model, encouraging them to hang on to their dreams. As Hannah says, “Akila’s is an awe-inspiring story, and people here in Dharmapuri hail her as a heroine. She has set an important precedent against child marriage. And about the importance of education.”
The young woman now wants to become a teacher. And, hopefully, inspire her future students with her own life-altering story.