A story to celebrate on the International Day of the Girl Child

Rekha Kalindi refused to enter a child marriage at age 12 and insisted on staying in school. Her stand is helping change attitudes in part of rural India.

Ben Arnoldy
Rekha Kalindi, a 12-year-old girl living in Bararola, India, refused to get married when her parents tried to arrange one and insisted on staying in school.
SOURCE: US Agency for International Development (USAID)

The United Nations has declared today the first International Day of the Girl Child and is observing – rather than celebrating – the day by focusing on the problem of child marriage.

However, I have a story about child marriage from my years reporting in India, that one can truly celebrate. 

But first, the startling statistics from the UN: Child marriage still happens to a third of young women globally. Pregnancy complications are the leading cause of death for girls 15 to 19 in the developing world. And child marriages cut short girls' education, while keeping girls in school longer has proven to be a key tactic to fight the problem. 

Efforts by girls to stay in school meet resistance from parents in poverty, ingrained cultural traditions, and, as we were reminded in Pakistan this week, radical Islamists. A Pakistani Taliban gunman shot twice 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai after she spoke out against the group and its efforts to shut down girls' schooling in Swat. She is recovering in a military hospital. 

In next-door India three years ago, I met Rekha Kalindi, a girl whose fight to stay in school met with less tragedy.

When Rekha Kalindi was nearing age 12, her parents told her they were planning to marry her off. Rekha's response would reverberate all the way up to the president of India: "No."

Nearly half of all Indian females get married before turning the legal minimum age of 18. The requirement has been in place for more than three decades, but centuries of custom don't change overnight – and that's especially true in Bararola, a land carved up into small farm plots and crisscrossed by dirt paths that takes at least a day's journey to reach from Calcutta. But even here, some people are taking a stand.

Many locals eke out a living making beedis, a leaf-wrapped Indian cigarette. Rekha was rolling beedis with her parents inside their mud-hut home when they broached her nuptials.

"I was very angry," says Rekha. "I told my father very clearly that this is my age of studying in school, and I didn't want to marry."

With the help of friends, teachers, and administrators, Rekha accomplished what the law alone has not. No child marriages have taken place in the surrounding villages where she and two other girls refused to marry last summer, and similar approaches are meeting some success in other regions.

To learn more about the sort of help that encouraged Rekha and could hold clues for combating child marriage, read the full story. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.