Brand ambassador ho tho aisa,” says Rtn Om Prakash Modi of Rotary Club of Raigarh Steel City, D 3261, speaking about Sunita Singh Choken who cycled 5,000 km from Somnath in Gujarat to Kathmandu, Nepal, in 40 days, raising awareness along the way for the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign. Sunita, an honorary member of RC Rewari Main, D 3011, was hosted by several Rotary clubs along her journey. This was her second solo cycling rally after successfully completing a 4,600-km journey from Kanyakumari to Khardungla, Leh, last year.
Sunita started off as a mountaineer before being known as a cyclist. In 2011, at 25, she was the youngest woman from Haryana to have climbed Mount Everest. But it is her cycling that has made her famous throughout the country. While schooling in Kishorpura, a village in Alwar district of Rajasthan, she developed a liking for trekking “as my school was on a hill. Later that developed into passion for scaling mountains.” To realise her dream of climbing the highest peak in the world, Sunita’s father, a BSF inspector, even took a loan to meet the huge expenses.
She belongs to the Gujjar community, a pastoral ethnic group that “still has a very low education rate. Child marriage is a huge challenge in my community. So, I decided to address this cause,” she says. One of the child marriages she witnessed as a school student was that of her neighbour, a two-month-old baby girl! “She was placed in a decorated thali and passed around the agni kund and vowed into marriage to a baby boy. That disturbing incident is still fresh in my mind.”
Recipient of the Nari Shakti Award 2016, she recalls how she had to stand up against her own community and relatives many times. If she had to seak police intervention to stop such child marriages, “the community will stop inviting me or my family to the weddings and start keeping them a secret. So, I began visiting primary schools and meeting parents. I would talk to them about how much more girls can achieve if they were given education. I would give them my own example.”
Through this rally she wants to send out a message to the girls, “that you should dare to dream and have the courage to fulfill your dreams as each one of you has the potential.”
After successfully scaling Mount Everest, she was invited by RC Rewari Main to address one of their club meetings, “and I was inducted as an honorary member a month before my second cycling rally.” Her first rally was to campaign for a ‘Green India’ when she planted over 200 saplings across several cities. The journey also made her the first Indian woman to cycle solo from Kanyakumari to Khardungla.
“At that time, I did not know anything about Rotary,” she says. But three Rotary clubs in Dharmapuri and Perungudi in South India heard about her rally and came forward to help her. “The Rotarians were warm and kind and supported my cause. That touched my heart. I did not know them but they came looking for me and offered help.” When RC Rewari Main flagged off the second rally, “I did not know that I would be taken care of like this. I was cared for like I was their own child.”
What makes Rotary even more special to her is that “sometimes Rotarians would stand 20 km before my pitstop and greet me. I was hosted at their homes and fed freshly-cooked home food. My clothes were washed and dried overnight, my cycle serviced and washed clean without me even asking. This was mind-boggling because they had met me only for the first time.” One of the most interesting projects that touched her heart was the massive rehabilitation work done by Rotary in Gujarat after the 2001 earthquake. “I visited the Rotary Village and schools set up post the earthquake and the Rotarians have done an amazing job.”
Her route map was modified a little depending upon the location of the Rotary club hosting her. This time around she planted close to 7,000 saplings along with Rotarians throughout the journey. “The power of Rotary helped me complete this rally successfully. I could promote both Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao and Green India.” She was hosted by several clubs and “after this journey, I realised that India is the repository of unity in diversity, and Rotary, with all its diversity, is one and the same, be it in India, Nepal or elsewhere.”