Married at 13 and a mother of twins by 14, Neetu Sarkar – now 21 – has defied all odds.

‘I was raised in a traditional Hindu family in rural Haryana, northern India, and my childhood changed forever when I was 13. I had arrived home from school, dumped my bag and changed into my ‘play time’ salwar kameez when my mother stopped me and told me to sit down. I knew it was serious when my father came into the room to join us. ‘You’re getting married,’ my mother said, her eyes blank. I stared at her in disbelief. I knew of child marriages; everyone knows about them. My parents were married as children, as were their parents before them, but I’d assumed – or hoped – they wouldn’t make me follow suit. I valued my education and dreamed of becoming a teacher. No girl in India gets excited about getting married.

Five days later, my mother dressed me in a red sari for my wedding day. I was determined not to cry. There were no protestations from me and no gentle kisses or apologetic whispers from my mother, who thought this was the best for my future. I did not blame her. I was marrying a 43-year-old-man from our village – he was older than my father. As is customary, a local matchmaker had connected our families based on caste, salary and respect in the community. My father met his father and the arrangement was made.

When I saw my husband for the first time I couldn’t look at him so I stared at my feet the whole time. It was no grand occasion, just a simple Hindu ceremony where we walked around a fire seven times and made seven promises to each other, a process called the saat phere. Then we went to my husband’s home – my new home – where he lived with his parents.

That night, shortly after sunset, I was ushered onto a thin mattress and my new husband raped me. I’d never had a boyfriend and no one had told me about sex. There’s no sex education in school and our parents never sit us down to explain. I knew the biology of making babies from my class in school, and that people had babies once they were married, so I concluded that my husband would want to consummate the marriage. When he did, I sobbed quietly in agony.

My new home was sparse. We had two bedrooms and a simple sitting room attached to a kitchen. My family life had always been simple as my father was a farm labourer so this was no different. My father struggled when my new husband expected a dowry for our marriage – when the bride’s father provides a sum of money or land – but he coped. For me, the days passed as I cleaned and helped my mother-in-law in the kitchen, hiding tears as I chopped vegetables or swept the floor. Every night I laid in bed desperately trying to take my mind elsewhere as my husband took his pleasure.

One afternoon, during my second week of marriage, I was in the house alone preparing dinner when my father in law arrived home. We had never spoken before because it’s respectable in our culture for a daughter-in-law not to engage with her father-in-law. But I felt him brush past my clothing and then he crouched down to touch me inappropriately. I sat frozen on the floor, a bowl of potatoes and onions in front of me, knife still in hand, as he sexually molested me. It lasted for a few minutes before he stepped outside for a cigarette. My instinct was to run but feeling nauseous and terrified, I returned to chopping the onions.

The next morning, I woke early and ran the short distance to my parents’ home in the same village. As soon as I got there I collapsed at my mother’s feet and begged her, ‘Please don’t send me back,’ telling them everything that had happened. I had no idea what to expect. My father was angry that my husband’s family had disrespected our family but he didn’t comfort me.

‘I feared they would send me back to protect our family’s honour.’

But they stood by me and my father visited the local ‘Kangaroo court’, a group of locally elected village elders known for solving disputes and attempting to maintain order in our villages. Within a few days the elders decided we could annul the marriage on the condition that we never told the police. My father agreed, and I was allowed to go home.

It was when I asked my mother about returning to school that I was hit by another blow. Marriage will always be more important than education or jobs for girls in India. Within three months, I was to be married again. This time to a man who was seven years older than me. At the ceremony, my second husband, Sanjay, whispered in my ear; ‘I’ll give you a good life. I’ll look after you.’ I desperately wanted to believe him.

Neetu Sarkar having lunch with her family. © Cover Asia Press/ Faisal Magray

My new family was very affectionate. I lived with my husband, who turned out to be a lovely man, his mother and his younger sister. The father had passed away and I was elated there were no other men in the house. My mother-in-law – a warm-hearted woman – and I bonded quickly over cooking and shared recipes.

I wasn’t surprised when I discovered that I was pregnant at 13, having started my periods just a year earlier. Tests confirmed that I was carrying twins, which ran in my husband’s family. When the doctor told my husband he was worried about my young body coping with the heavy burden of twins he suggested we should consider abortion, but my mother-in-law refused. ‘If I could do it then she can do it,’ she said to Sanjay.

‘I had to obey my mother-in-law.’

By the end of the pregnancy I could barely move. I felt uncomfortably full, I lost my appetite and walking anywhere was exhausting so I was bed bound for most of my pregnancy. Despite this, my motherly instincts kicked in – I had two babies growing and I desperately wanted to protect them.

In September 2008, in my eighth month, I underwent an emergency caesarian for the safety of myself and my babies. I kissed my husband goodbye as I went into surgery. ‘You’ll be great,’ he reassured me.

We had two beautiful boys, Prince and Ayush and, at 14-years-old, my life revolved around babies, cooking and cleaning. I was a good wife and mother but I desperately missed my studies. I felt grateful to have kindness in my family, but I was living the life of a 30-year-old when I was only a teenager.

Album picture of Neetu Sarkar with her baby twins and mother-in-law Marman. © Cover Asia Press

In 2010, the Commonwealth Games came to New Delhi, and it was on TV. One afternoon, my attention was caught by one event – young, muscular women fighting in a ring and I became captivated by these female wrestlers. I’d never seen anything like it – their strength, their bodies and the crowds of people cheering and applauding them.

I knew there was an Akhara – an Indian wrestling ring – nearby so I decided to visit. But I felt stupid after turning up to see the place full of huge, sweaty men. I stayed a few minutes before I left feeling embarrassed. The next day I went back and watched the men fight. ‘Do you train women?’ I asked one of the instructors. But he looked at me as though I was crazy and asked me to leave. ‘We don’t allow women in here,’ he said. I left quickly but two days later, I felt compelled to return. Each visit built my confidence and something grew inside of me. My whole life had been based on decisions made for me by other people but this was something I wanted for myself.

‘I’d like to become a wrestler,’ I said to one of the trainers. He told me to go home to my husband, but that only made me more determined. Each week I returned asking the same question. ‘Ok, you win,’ he eventually said after two months. I bounded home and told my husband. He was supportive and even suggested I cut my hair so that it wouldn’t hinder my training. Each day, I woke up at 3am to run 10km and get to the gym for weight training before my family got up at 7am and would need me to cook for them.

My first training match was nerve-wracking. I pulled on my bright red wrestling boots and tied the laces as I waited ringside for my session to begin. My opponent was male – double my strength – and it was unusual for a girl to be so intimate with an unmarried man.

Initially, it was strange to fight against a man but I got used to it. I was very weak at first and I used to fail a lot but as I got stronger I was equal to these men and it felt amazing.

‘I knew my goal of becoming a wrestler was possible.’

It feels empowering for all women who fight like me. It’s like I’m doing it for all women. I hope our strength is seen positively by other women of our country and it inspires them to fight and achieve their dream; even in a male dominated sport like this. Whoever my opponent is, I was determined to train to win.

By 2011 I was taking my training very seriously. I changed my diet and was pulling weights and doing cardio for up to 17 hours a day at the Akhara. As the training became more demanding my husband began to help with the duties at home. I was steadily bulking out. By 2012 my trainer thought I was ready to compete and began to prepare me for the 2014 Senior National Championship, in Haryana. I was competing in the 53 kg category and I felt a combination of nerves, excitement and sheer determination. It was my first competition and I walked away having won bronze. I was buzzing.

Neetu Sarka practising at her training centre in Haryana. © Cover Asia Press/ Faisal Magray

Then in 2015 I represented India in the World Championships in Brazil. I even attempted to qualify for the Rio Olympics but I didn’t make the team. As I watched my training mate Sakshi Malik take the Olympic bronze medal for India, I was so happy for her. She’s my inspiration and her win made me even more determined to compete in the next Olympics. I’m now focusing all my training on Japan 2020. I’m determined to come home with a medal for my family.

I knew nothing about wrestling as a child but I now feel strength in a way I didn’t before. There is not a single boy who is an athlete, let alone a girl, in my village and that makes me feel proud. I want to tell all parents in India to believe in your little girl and to educate her. But above all, let her live her own dreams, not yours.’