Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.(Proverbs 31:8-9)
Many or all of us would agree with the above Scripture. But it can be one for the ‘easier said than done’ basket, can’t it? I know I feel tempted to ask, ‘is now the right time to stand up for the vulnerable?’, ‘can’t someone else, do it?’, and ‘for how long must I advocate?’
But for the most courageous among us, these questions don’t factor. This is the story of one particularly brave young woman.
When Sunita was 15, she came home from school to see a room full of people. To her horror, her parents had arranged for her 16-year-old sister to leave school, get married, and be sent away with these strangers.
Child marriage is illegal in Nepal, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t common practice.
One in three Nepali girls are married before they turn 18.
Sadly, girls who marry young are often subject to social isolation, receive inadequate schooling, and are at heightened risk of complications in pregnancy and birth—one of the leading causes of death in Nepali girls aged 15-19. Child marriage kills any hopes these girls have of making their own choices and governing their own futures.
Sunita petitioned her mother, ‘She’s only 16! How can you do this?!’ Her father reprimanded her, reminding his daughter that the decision was not her concern.
Child Marriage in Nepal
It’s important that we understand that there are both cultural expectations and economic factors that pull families towards this choice.
In most cases, parents are seeking to help their daughter by arranging her marriage and setting her on the traditional path of becoming a wife and mother early in life. In this way, they know she will likely have a roof over her head and avoid the stigma of remaining unmarried. Additionally, where the family experiences poverty, marrying off a daughter brings relief to a household budget under extreme stress.
So it makes sense that where programs addressing poverty and promoting the benefits of schooling are available, the number of child marriages decreases.
One thing we’re seeing already is that it’s the young women and men leading the way.
A Changed Future, Thanks to Her Youth Club
Once, standing against the will of her parents would have been impossible for Sunita—she used to avoid leaving the house, and speaking to people at the market terrified her. But after joining our local Partner’s Youth Club, she grew in her knowledge of child rights, and gained confidence to defend her own rights and those of others.
Because of this she continued, undeterred by the weight of expectation and tradition, to stand up to her parents and fight for her sister’s right to not get married.
Sunita rallied the Youth Club to help her. For two months, all 15 members of the Youth Club came to her home to convince her parents not to send her sister to be married.
The group explained that child marriage before 20 is illegal in Nepal. And they used the former Nepal President, Bidya Devi Bhandari, as an example of what a girl can do. Sunita said, ‘Maybe your daughter may be President in future, if you educated her.’
With collective determination, this group of young people convinced Sunita’s family to stop the marriage and let her sister complete her education. After school, her sister learned to sew and now designs dresses she sells from her shop—generating income for herself and her parents.
What’s Next for Sunita?
Sunita is unstoppable. Now aged 20, she’s Chairperson of the Youth Club and inspires her peers to work towards the changes they long to see in Nepal. Among other initiatives, they perform street dramas to teach their community about the importance of education and child rights.
And Sunita has big dreams of her own.
‘I have convinced my parents that I will become a police officer in future,’ she said. ‘Nowadays, they believe me. All parents should listen to the voice of their children and make an environment for them to grow.’
Stand with Sunita and fight child marriage by becoming a Child Sponsor today.
Our International Programs team is currently compiling research into child marriage and the efficacy of our programs in creating positive change. We look forward to sharing the results with you.