Having seen her sister marry before 18, Saleha Khan decided to walk a different path – one that took her to the United Nations in New York! This is her story.
“I come from a very conservative family. Growing up was really difficult, I wasn’t allowed to go school and had to drop out when my father forced me to. I was 12 when my sister, who was barely 18 at that time, was made to marry. Soon we got to know that she was pregnant and had lost her baby. She was heartbroken. It got me thinking about my own life. I was certain I didn’t want to marry early. I wanted to study.
I got to know about Apnalaya and heard that they provide educational support. With help from an Apnalaya counsellor, I talked to my parents and though still sceptical, they agreed to send me to school. At the same time, I began attending Apnalaya’s different sessions for adolescents on various topics. It was there I first heard about menstrual hygiene and how little I knew of it. This was something no one in my community or even at home dared talk about openly.
My session teacher encouraged us to share our new knowledge with others. It was not easy but I really felt it was important to share. I was nervous initially but I went on to take over 250 sessions on menstrual hygiene and gender. I invited my friends to come listen. I think it changed them too. Some of them began coming to school with me and enrolling for help from Apnalaya.
People began appreciating my work. In 2016, I won the Savitribai Phule Puraskar and was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize. I was selected to speak at the Ashoka Ventures and Youth ki Awaaz panels. In September this year, I attended the UN General Assembly in New York and was selected to be a GoalKeeper at Bill and Melinda Gates official GoalKeepers18 event.
There was a time when I couldn’t dream of getting out of the house but today I’ve even traveled to America.
I think that my biggest achievement so far has been that I’ve been able to prevent my own early marriage, helped save other girls from the same fate and convinced over a score of girls (and their families) to get back to school. Today I’m also a mentor for young girls in my community under Apnalaya’s Khula Aasmaan programme. I play kabaddi in the open field and learn about my rights and responsibilities and share it with other girls.
At home, I’ve noticed a difference. My father proudly talks about me to everyone, doesn’t tell me to hide anymore and encourages me to share all my learning and knowledge. My brother helps out with the household chores equally. The women in my house all use pads and know how to dispose it properly. We’re doing so much better now.”