Sheeja (name changed) is 16 years old and studying in an aided school in Pune. But unlike her friends at the school, her biggest fear is not exams. In fact, she loves exams and studies.
After being forced to get married early this month, Sheeja had to fight her parents, relatives and almost every member of the powerful Maratha community in her village in Ahmednagar to stop the wedding.
“We got a message from her on June 7 late evening saying she needed help and that she was being forced to get married. She said she wanted to study a lot and she wanted us to take her away from her home,” says Pranita Madkaikar, CEO, Tara Mobile Creche (TMC), an NGO that runs care centres for children of construction workers. “We were moved by the desperation in the message. We called her mother and talked to Sheeja. She started crying on the call. The marriage was fixed on June 11 and we knew if we did not act fast, we won’t be able to help her,” says Madkaikar.
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Sheeja was nine years old when her grandparents started leaving her at TMC while they went out for work. “Her parents were from Nagar and she was being looked after by her grandparents who were construction labourers. We got her admitted to class 2 in a local PMC school. Soon, her marks improved and she started scoring exceptionally well in mathematics,” says Lalita Kamble, assistant programme coordinator at the TMC. “We then put her in a residential school so that she did not have to move about as constructional workers keep moving from place to place according to the work they get.”
Sheeja passed her class 8 and went home for the vacations this May. “After she came back, we took measurements for her new uniform clothes on June 5. The next day, her father suddenly came and took her away. After they reached their home, she was told about her wedding scheduled after five days. Sheeja somehow took somebody’s phone and used to text us without being seen. She also made sure messages were deleted afterwards,” says Kirti Kamble, programme coordinator at TMC.
“We took the help of NGOs Childline and Snehalaya. We went to Snehalaya on June 9 and then visited the police station under whose jurisdiction their village fell. From there, four of us, along with two policemen, went to the village,” says Kamble.
“The scene in the village was extremely hostile,” recalls Ganesh, who was part of the team that visited the girl’s village. “The moment our vehicle arrived, around 200 people surrounded us. The policemen asked us to be seated inside as it could have turned ugly. Sheeja was wearing a saree and the moment she saw us, she ran to us. There were heated arguments and her parents warned her to come back. But she did not budge. She was even beaten by her father but she still refused to go inside the house. After an-hour-and-a-half, all of us came to the police station. After hearing both sides, the police took Sheeja aside to find out what she wanted.”
“Police took me inside and asked me what I wanted to do. I told them I wanted to go with TMC people. I was scared when I came to know about my marriage. I want to study further and get a job. I knew if I wavered, it would be the end of my ambitions. I had confidence in the TMC members. I knew they would save me,” says Sheeja, who was then taken to an observation home and later produced before the child welfare committee, which, after an affidavit from the parents, let her go with TMC in the best interests of the child.
“If it was not for the courage of this girl, we would have lost her case in the village itself. A normal child would not have been able to stand up against her own parents, relatives and community. She knew her rights, she knew it was illegal to get married at 16 and all this because she had education. We hope we are able to help more such children,” says Madkaikar.
Sheeja loves drawing and painting and wants to become an architect when she grows up.