An early marriage at a tender age of 14 had forced Santana Murmu out of school when she was in class VIII.
A mother of two daughters now, the poor tribal girl from West Bengal has fought back her way to school after four years to finish her studies.
Not only that, she is actively working for stopping child marriages and was even invited to the UN General Assembly last year to share her stories.
Leaving her children with her in-laws and husband, she walks three km every morning from Kushmandi village in South Dinajpur district to attend Manikore High School.
Her first class resumed last week after a gap of four years.
“I am very excited. I am the senior-most in the class now and they look up to me with lot of respect. All I want is to be a teacher and fulfill my dream,” Murmu, whose elder daughter Vasundhara is three-years-old and attends the Anganwadi playschool, said.
Throughout her journey, her labourer-husband Gobind Hemram has been a constant support besides members of the child rights NGO Child In Need Institute (CINI).
“I am proud of her and have realised that life would have been better for her had we not married early. Education and health is very important and so I am supporting her,” said Hemram, a class V dropout himself. Before becoming a child bride, Murmu always dreamt of being a teacher one day in life.
Her father funded education of her brother till the master's level but when it came to the daughter's future he unfortunately had a different yardstick.
“Suddenly one day I was told that I am getting married to someone. That time I could do nothing to stop my marriage or continue my studies. But now I have convinced my husband,” Murmu said.
After realising the burden of being a 'child bride' the school dropout took a vow to help other young teens in her village. So far she has stopped at least three such underage girls from being forcibly married off by building societal pressure in the tribal Santhali community where a girl is considered fit for marriage after puberty.
It was during this period that she got associated with CINI and started working as an NGO volunteer for stopping child marriages.
Her work got noticed and she got invited to the UN General Assembly in New York last year to share her stories of how maternal mortality can be prevented by implementing ban on child marriages.
The turning point came when people in America asked her about her education. “I felt sad to tell them that I studied only till class eight. I told them that time that I will go back to my village and restart my studies. Now I have kept my word. I took it as a challenge,” she said. Getting admission to the school wasn't easy.
“The headmaster initially refused to admit her but after the intervention of the BDO (Block Development Officer) the matter was settled,” said Sujoy Roy from CINI. An activist now, the class IX student doesn't mind ruffling feathers with elders in the village.
“Some people do get very irritated with her as she is challenging the age-old tradition of early marriage. But nothing discourages her,” he said.