WHEN SHE was in Class 8, Vijaylaxmi Sharma underwent an experience that changed her life —and the lives of several other girls around her. That was the year when her friend Mamta, just 13 years old, died during childbirth. Till then, Vijaylaxmi had been struggling to convince her parents to call off her own marriage, fixed with a 19-year old boy. Mamta’s death was the turning point. “I knew I had to put my foot down or I’d meet the same fate,” she says.
She won that battle. Today, Vijaylaxmi is 27, with an MA in History and a B.Ed from Rajasthan University, and a teacher at a private school. But what’s more important is the battles she was won since. She has helped 27 girls skip early marriage in an around her village near Jaipur.
Vijaylaxmi heads a group of 15, which goes door to door, spreading awareness about the dangers of child marriage, including the health hazards, and other physical and social problems associated with this practice. This group, which includes her two brothers, some of the girls she helped, and anganwadi and healthcare workers, also organises street plays and puppet shows twice every year, especially during the wedding season.
Vijaylaxmi’s reach is now spread over 13 villages that come under the two panchayats of Pachala and Mandore, both under Fagi tehsil in rural Jaipur.
“I have to say she is doing great work. She has helped so many girls. Now villagers are scared of her, that she will report them if they get their children married early,” says Rakesh Sharma, principal of the government secondary school in Jhodinda Bhojpura village.
“I tell them punish me if anything goes wrong. If people still don’t agree, then we are left with no other option but to report it to the authorities. It’s the last resort,” says Vijaylaxmi.
Everything, she says, started with Mamta’s death. “Ever since I can remember, child marriage had been the norm in my community… my cousins, neighbours, classmates,” she says.
Vijaylaxmi, however, wanted to study further instead of choosing the future her parents and her community had drawn up for her.
But when she told her parents —father Sarwan Lal Sharma is a daily-wage labourer, mother Kamla is an anganwadi worker —they did not take her seriously.
“They would ignore me, thinking I was being misled by someone. Once my entire joint family was at my house, sitting in the aangan. I conveyed my decision in front of everyone and still nobody took me seriously,” says Vijaylaxmi.
“Finally, when Mamta passed away, everything changed. I told my father if you’re so obsessed with marriage, why don’t you sit in the mandap yourself,” she says.
Her rebellion did not go unpunished. She was locked in a room, disallowed from going out or meeting anyone, and with no food. Help, she says, came from within the house: her two younger brothers Mahesh and Vijay, eight and six, respectively, then. “They would unlock my room and share their food with me when our parents weren’t around. Then they fought with my parents, giving up food and asking to be locked up with me,” says Vijaylaxmi.
Mamta’s funeral finally convinced her parents but it was not easy for them, either. “My uncles and other villagers asked my father, ‘you think she will become a collector by studying?’” she says.
Her parents’ other major concern was their poor financial condition, but she assured them that not only would she take care of her own education, but that of her brothers, too. Finally, her parents gave her a year, hoping she would admit defeat —only to be proved wrong.
“I did everything to continue my education as that was the only way I could avoid getting married. I started tailoring when I was 11. My brothers and I worked at MNREGA job sites to make ends meet,” says Vijaylaxmi.
“It was then that I decided to help other girls out. Initially, it was difficult. The first time I tried talking to the family of a 12-year-old girl, who was about to be married, they flatly refused. I then spoke to the local anganwadi worker, sarpanch of the village and some other people. Finally, the family relented. That was my first success,” she says.
Then there was Kanta, 10 years old when her parents fixed her marriage in 2013. “Had didi (elder sister) not spoken to my parents, they would have certainly married me off then,” says Kanta, with a sigh of relief, at her home in Pachala village. Kanta is now a Class 8 student.