BY: Zoe Melnyk
After not one but two marriages before turning 15, Neetu Sarkar used wrestling as her way out of the oppressive life as a child bride in India.
At 13, Neetu was married to a man with a mental disability. He was well into his 30s.
Besides the obvious trauma of being married so young, Neetu also suffered from sexual assault at the hands of her father-in-law.
Despite her fear, Neetu confided in her father, who pulled her out of the arrangement. However, her relief was short-lived as her parents quickly found another match, and at the age of 14, Neetu found herself in a second marriage.
While the situation sounds astonishing to western countries, the idea of child brides is not unusual in many areas of the world, including parts of Central and South America, the Middle East, South-East Asia, and most of Africa.
The issue spans the globe, but it’s particularly severe in India where 18 percent of girls are married by 15, and 47 percent are married by 18.
India adopted the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act in 2007, which changed the legal age of marriage for a woman to 18. However, in order to annul marriages that violate the new law, the family of the bride must report it. Since it’s generally the families that arrange the marriages, many girls are forced into the union, regardless of law.
Unfortunately, Neetu twice found herself among the thousands of women in India who are forced into a marriage every year. However, instead of falling into the housewife role, Neetu sought to provide for her family while also striving for personal and financial independence.
After attempting working as a maid, shop assistant, and leading an almost successful tailor career, Neetu’s life was changed when she found herself in a street brawl defending an in-law.
Neetu was knocked unconscious for weeks after a blow from an iron rod. Many believed Neetu would never recover, but the fight, along with the international games in New Delhi that she witnessed on TV, actually inspired Neetu.
She saw wrestling as a way out of her controlled life and began training to the point where she would spend seven and a half hours a day preparing for a fight.
Neetu admits that she couldn’t do it without the support of her husband, Sanjay Kumar, who may have been doubtful in the beginning but is now completely on board.
Kumar stays home with their two sons while Neetu lives through the week in a room close to the gym where she practices.
Because official birth records often go undocumented in India, Neetu’s exact age is up for debate. She identifies as 20 while her passport claims she is 21. Either way, she is already an accomplished wrestler with a promising career ahead of her that includes prize money and a possible sponsorship from India’s Railway Board, which promises athletes a career along the railroad so long as they retire in their mid 20s.
Her community is possibly the most shocked by her success, who at first doubted her dreams and scuffed at the idea of Neetu being a professional wrestler. Now, her neighbours openly support her ambition and encourage her to influence young women in the area.
While Neetu seems to be breaking every stereotype for women in India, it’s not without struggle. Men are still fearful that women who participate in professional sports will gain too much power and confidence and will become more difficult to control.
As for Neetu, and women around the world, that isn’t really seen as an issue.