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The girl leader championing change in her community

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Child Marriage Education Girls' Rights

22-year-old Asha is busy preparing for the training sessions on gender equality she runs for girls between the ages of 10-24 every Friday and Saturday. “I want all the participants to learn about their bodies and their choices. This will help them to understand why child marriage is a harmful traditional practice.”

Asha has been a facilitator for Plan International’s Champions of Change programme in Nepal for the past year and a half. The project aims to advance gender equality through youth engagement, equipping young people with the skills to identify and challenge the harmful, negative cultural norms that perpetuate discrimination and inequality.

Having avoided marriage as a girl, Asha wants to ensure other girls understand their right to choose their own futures. “My elder sisters got married when they were just 19 years old, both eloped with their boyfriends,” shares Asha. “My parents were worried I might also choose someone and run away so they decided to get me married as early as possible.”

Asha was 16 years old when her parents asked her to get married. “My father had trust issues after my sisters ran away. He worried about my life ending with the wrong person,” she says. “My parents started getting proposals from my neighbours, relatives, and people whom we barely knew. They all came to meet my parents to discuss my marriage.”

But Asha stood up for herself, and told her parents that she did not want to get married yet. Instead she asked to stay in school and finish her studies. Fortunately, her parents listened to her and supported her wishes, her father telling her: “I will support you as long as you want to study.”

Now at university studying business, Asha is currently in her sixth semester and uses the income she earns as a Champions of Change facilitator to pay her tuition fees. “My parents are farmers and I do want to put the financial burden of my studies on them as their income is not enough to sustain the family.”

Championing change in Nepal

Plan International’s Champions of Change programme in Nepal is a proven community-wide strategy for promoting gender equality and positive social norm change through child and youth engagement and peer-to-peer training, tackling the root causes of discrimination and challenging stereotypes. It uses a foundational and key life skill-based approach to educating adolescents and youths through modules which are studied at dedicated learning centres.

A champions of change centre
A Champions of Change session

Asha usually has to visit the girls’ homes to persuade parents to let their daughters take part in the initiative. “It was not easy to go from home to home to convince the parents to send their daughters to the Champions of Change sessions. We had to set up accessible locations for the girls to meet as they need at least two hours to complete each module. The most convenient safe spaces were schools or ward offices.”

Asha tells us that she likes to start each session with a game to break the ice. “It helps if the girls can learn with fun. We laugh together and enjoy the sessions. The girls love the Champions of Change sessions, but during the planting season, they attend less as they are helping their parents with the farming.”

Working to end child marriage

One of the most popular subjects discussed during the sessions is marriage, with some girls reporting that their parents are trying to marry them off. When Asha learns of a possible case of child marriage, she does her best to try to stop it.

Asha works with the rural municipality, police and other authorities to prevent cases of child marriage. “We do not want the girls themselves to be directly involved in stopping early marriages. We encourage them to report the incidents. It is then up to the authorities to act in a time to save the girl.”

At times, Asha says the responsibility of keeping girls in her community safe weighs heavily on her. “I often find it stressful when I have to report child marriages happening in my community. I motivate myself by reading articles on how child, early and forced marriage is affecting young girls and I keep myself updated as Plan International provides refresher training to update our knowledge on these issues. Every time I learn new techniques and skills which I use to facilitate the sessions.”

Over time, the girls attending the Champions of Change sessions have become more confident and now take the initiative to teach their friends and family what they have learnt. “They go door-to-door and inform the parents about the impact of child marriage. Now the parents are more comfortable sending their daughters to the training sessions.”

Positive, sustainable change

When Asha thinks back to when she was a girl, she says there weren’t any groups that children could join where they could learn about their rights and how to make informed decisions. “I was limited to my school, with no community exposure. Now, girls are demanding their rights and are being supported by the local authorities as well. Last year, the ward office provided them with stationery like notebooks, pens and geometry kits. This is a positive change.”

Asha and her bicycle
Asha and her bicycle, which she uses to travel to the Champions of Change centre

Thinking about the future, Asha says she would like to see a world where girls can live their lives freely. “I wish there were no barriers like harmful traditional practices, such as child marriage to stop them achieving what they desire. When I was a child, people did not have to migrate to earn an income. They were engaged in farming and production was good at the time. I wish the same thing for Bardiya again.”

Asha hopes to become an accountant in the banking sector when she finishes her studies. “I want to be financially independent before I get married. Two more years to complete my master’s degree in business studies. In five years, I believe I will be working in one of Nepal’s reputable banks. I also have an interest in photography. I love traveling and want to capture everything on camera as memories.”

Asha says she is also proud of herself for everything she has managed to achieve over the past few years. “I have become more patient as I work with teenagers. I have developed new skills in negotiating with the municipal authorities for approving the annual budget for the Champions of Change programme and I am able to convince parents to send their daughter to the sessions.”