Her mission began even before she was born. That's when Jyoti's father passed away and her 17-year-old widowed mother faced stigma. Jyoti grew up in an extended household where her mother's presence was frowned upon, where she was banished from marriages and other celebratory functions and where she wasn't spoken to properly. All this left a deep impact on the delicate sensibilities of this young child.
As she grew up and attended school, Jyoti started questioning the skewed mores and hypocrisy of her society. Speaking from Dabadwas, Jyoti in a childlike voice says with a wisdom far beyond her years, "There is no honour for widows in our society. In my village, they aren't allowed to come out of the house and mix with others, they aren't allowed to wear nice clothes and their very presence is considered an ill-omen. I wanted to change all that."
She saw the humiliation and disrespect heaped on her mother but was too young to know how to bring about a change. So, she approached the head teacher in her school, Sangeeta Yadav, and found out more about the plight of widows in India. Knowing that she needed more support from authorities, she approached the sarpanch of her village, Bhagwati Devi. Hearing her concerns, Devi was enthused enough to convene meetings to rid the village of this age-old custom.
In 2010, Jyoti started campaigning for this cause. She went from house to house trying to convince people to change their attitude towards widows. "Initially, nobody listened to me as I was so small. Often , I would be thrown out. But I didn't lose courage and went right back. I also used to do nukkad nataks (street plays) with 4-5 friends as taught by my teachers. Eventually, the elders decided to give me a hearing but I had to face quite a bit of opposition, especially from the men. They couldn't digest that a girl was breaking their customs and would beat us up," she says. But that hardly mattered. Jyoti says with practiced ease, "Log tho aise hi hai (People are like that only). If it helps improve society, I don't mind." Her efforts finally paid off. Widows, like her mother, are now employed as anganwadi workers and are paid Rs 3,500 monthly.
Jyoti, incidentally studies in Satya Bharti Government Upper Primary School which is part of the Bharti Foundation, a philanthropic group set up in 2000 to provide quality education to underprivileged children in rural India. It has 254 schools in Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.
In recognition of her efforts, Jyoti became a National Honoree at the Pramerica Spirit of Community Awards 2012, an international contest for student-led community initiatives, and represented India in Washington DC in May. She will also be taking part in the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon on September 30 and the funds she raises will be used to promote literacy.
She's naturally an inspiration for her friends who say they want to work with her. Jyoti also has an elder sister in Class IX. Her mother, Mukesh Devi is proud of her courageous daughter. "After my husband's demise, my in-laws wouldn't even talk to me properly. I felt like a burden on them. I would often cry. Now, things have changed for the better . I have the freedom to lead a normal life and earn for my family."
Jyoti, meanwhile, wants to continue the good work. Her next mission is more daunting — she wants to get widows remarried. But eventually, she wants to become a doctor.
The healing touch continues.