‘Make young people aware of their rights and they become catalysts of change’

‘By empowering boys and girls, they become their own protectionists.’ Sumnima Tuladhar is director of CWIN, a pioneer child rights NGO in Nepal and partner of Her Choice alliance member ICDI. Despite the fact that Nepal is going through rough times because of COVID-19, she is hopeful about the future, and convinced of the effectiveness of the programme: ‘The power of Her Choice is immense. And that’s mainly because we work directly with boys and girls, also during lockdown.’ 

Are you still able to you work during these times, and how has the pandemic changed this?

‘The national Child Helplines run by CWIN have been actively engaged throughout the lockdown in Nepal to provide emergency relief, rescue, social reintegration and intervention against child marriages. We have been able to keep in touch with young people via online platforms as well. This is very much needed because the schools in Nepal are still closed.

The pandemic situation has created more challenges to our work in terms of our outreach with the communication we work with and loss of employment among the parents of the children. Poverty and desperation may lead to girls not returning to school when these reopen, because they are needed to help sustaining the family economy. We see a big disparity between the villages and the cities regarding to distance learning. My son is in a private school and follows online classes, but in the rural areas children hardly have internet: they have radio and national television that offer distance learning. More interventions, more outreach and more active engagement is more required than ever before to ensure the fundamental rights of the children and to prevent child marriages and many of its manifestations.

Furthermore, it seems like COVID-19 has reached our office: our accountant was tested positive and also a couple of the counselors who are running the child helplines. Personally, the virus has also put me in a difficult situation. My husband runs a large public health institution and has to speak and meet a lot of people for his work. Because I care for my elderly mother and recently also for my sick sister, my husband and I have been living apart for seven months now. I have also not been able to see my son for a month now. Only when my sister’s treatments are over, I can return home.’

What keeps you going?

‘We just organized a huge online event where 240 girls from all 77 districts in Nepal could meet each other and discuss their personal and communities’ struggle in coping with the difficult situation caused by COVID-19. Such a meeting gives me so much positive energy; to see and hear all these girls from all over Nepal, sharing their experiences and present themselves. We’re still able to reach the girls, inform them, consult them and be there for them.’

How big is the problem of child marriage in your country, and how come, you think?

‘Nepal is the country with one of the highest numbers of child marriages. 40% of Nepalese girls are married before their 18th birthday and 7% are married before the age of 15. This is mainly because of the patriarchal mindset: girls and women are still not given an equal status. Girls are seen as less valuable, due to their economic contribution. They are seen as a burden. A groom ensures stability. Because there is still a lot of gender discrimination, a lot of parents feel that they have to marry their daughters off as soon as possible. Girls are seen as virgin gods and that’s why their virginity has to be protected. They’re afraid of sexual exploitation and are looking for male protection. And then there is the dowry culture in Nepal: the older the daughter gets, the higher the dowry is that the bride’s family has to pay the husband’s family. When a bride is very young, the dowry is also very low.

At this moment, economic reasons carry the greatest weight. Because of COVID-19 so many families are losing their jobs. And the situation is getting worse: there are more and more families who are having difficulties eating two meals a day. Marrying their daughter off is a remedy to cope with this poverty: there is one less mouth to feed.

In Nepal we also have to deal with the self-initiated marriages, or the so-called love marriages; the result of society failing to understand what comprehensive sexuality education is. Now that the internet is available to more and more boys and girls, they come into contact with each other more. That leads to young people getting attracted to each other and falling in love with each other naturally.

In the rural areas this is still a big taboo. When young people want to have intimate relationships with each other, they have to get married first. But for most young girls and boys it is a sense of liberty; they feel trapped between four walls and want to break free. Most of them have no idea what sex is. Also because of this, we see a lot of sexual exploitation: men who pretend to love a girl but have different intentions. That’s why we don’t like to use the term ‘love marriages’; very often these are manifestations of human trafficking.’

And what aspect of the Her Choice programme is the most powerful to help to tackle this, and why?

‘Very important is the engagement of civil society actors including the religious leaders. But the most important aspect of the success of the Her Choice programme is the empowerment of young people and strengthening the agency of young people. With peer education so many things can change for the better. Sometimes there is only one tap on the shoulder needed to feel empowered enough to choose for another option. Peer educators can give other young people support and information about their Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) to make better informed decisions.

Not jobs, not education, but the one thing that is stable is their own agency. If young people are able to make an informed decision, they can take things into their own hands. Only if we actively keep empowering the girls and boys, we can ensure sustainability. We already see things change in the villages we work with. Girls we engaged in the programme, are able to speak for themselves and stop their own child marriage or one of those of their peers. When young people become aware of their rights and have a platform to express their views and make informed decisions, they become catalysts of change and the change that comes becomes sustainable.

The power of the Her Choice programme is immense. Even more so, Her Choice is one of the most powerful programmes of the more than 1000 projects we carried out in Nepal. And that’s mainly because of the fact that we work directly with the boys and girls. By empowering them, they become their own protectionists.’

What are you most proud of?

‘Of the sustained empowerment of adolescents; the transformation of lives through the awareness, empowerment and interventions through the project. More in particular, I’m proud of all the girls we rescued from child marriage during the lockdown. I remember one girl who called our helpline because she was promised to a boy. After our intervention, the parents were convinced to wait until she was 18 years old. The girl then started campaigning and writing letters to her peers and their parents, convincing them to wait with their marriage and continue their education. In this way, she made more than 100 girls aware or their rights as a girl. These initiatives are so important and I’m sure they’re going to sustain, also after Her Choice. The same goes for our national Child Helplines: they’ll function forever.

During this pandemic we got so much closer to each other because of the digital connections we’ve made with the girls and boys we work with. A lot of people in the villages still see mobiles phones as a treat, robbing their children of their childhood. But we see a mobile as a tool for liberation. We can talk with the boys and girls, transfer mobile data, collect research data, organize focus group discussions and carry out workshops around all kinds of topics.

The travel ban is annoying, but it has also given us a lot of extra time. Time we can put in our helplines, set up online training programmes or develop new tools (polls, online work forms, visually attractive images and slides) so that we can involve the boys and girls even better in our programme. We’ve seen that everything is possible online: recently girls could make their own comic book about child marriage online. At the same time, these digital opportunities are also the only hope we have: the internet is the only thing we have.’

How will you continue after Her Choice: which elements are going to last?

‘We will integrate the learnings and outcomes of Her Choice in our ongoing programmes including in our advocacy and campaigns. More importantly, we will continue to reach out to the young people to prevent child marriages through the Child Helplines we run in seven districts.

The empowerment centers formed under the leadership of the adolescents were innovative and will have sustained results among adolescents engaged in this initiative. We also continue to use the participatory videos we’ve made to raise awareness and initiate action to prevent child marriages. These videos gave ownership to young people by informing them about for example their SRHR.’

Do you have hopes for the future in being able to tackle child marriage in the future?

‘I am definitely hopeful: I’m pretty sure that the issue of child marriage can be tackled as the hundreds of adolescents who were oriented and trained through Her Choice now have become change agents. These change agents are already playing a proactive role to prevent and stop child marriages. Even during lockdown, they can still work on young people’s agency by empowering them; by informing them about their SRHR and supporting them to speak out and stand up for themselves.’