The courage to say no

Non-formal education classes help a 14-year-old girl from south-eastern Nepal put a stop to her impending marriage

Sundar Kumar Lama
17 February 2020

Mahottari, Nepal – Child marriage was nothing out of the ordinary in Rashida Khatun’s community in Gaushala Municipality in Mahottari District in south-eastern Nepal. The 14-year-old had grown up seeing it all around her. Her own mother and father had tied the knot at an early age, and she had witnessed her four elder sisters get married as teenagers as well.

“I knew I was next,” she says. “It was my turn.”

Indeed, Rashida knew her parents had already started planning to marry her off. A quiet girl, she had always deferred to their authority when it came to major decisions in her life, including her education. Despite her eagerness early on to go to school, she had not been allowed to do so, largely because her family was struggling financially. Instead, she and her sisters had spent their childhood doing household chores and taking care of the family’s farm, while their three younger brothers went to school.

Rashida would have likely gone ahead with the marriage, too, had it not been for an experience that altered her forever.

Rashida Khatun in her home in Mahottari
UNICEF Nepal/2019/SKLama

Rashida had just joined a UNICEF-supported non-formal education programme for girls that was being run in the area in coordination with the municipality and a local partner organization. The nine-month Girls’ Access to Education (GATE) Programme sought to empower out-of-school adolescent girls by giving them basic numeracy and literacy lessons, and useful life skills. Rashida’s father, Jang Ali Sheikh, was an elected ward member, as well as being the chairperson of the GATE class management committee. He had given her permission to enroll.

It was in these classes that Rashida came across the concept of child rights for the first time. “When I first joined the class, I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know that children had rights, or that child marriage was a violation of those rights, or that it was actually illegal,” she says. Rashida learned about the consequences of child marriage, including the life-threatening health risks associated with early pregnancy.

“I realized the harm I would be causing myself if I agreed to get married,” she says. “I made up my mind not to go through with it.”

Rashida Khatun in her home in Mahottari
UNICEF Nepal/2019/SKLama

Breaking the news to her parents presented a big challenge, though. Since her father was a much stricter figure in the family, Rashida first confided in her mother. “I told her I didn’t want to ruin my future by getting married so young,” she says. “I told her that I wanted to complete my studies, become a nurse.”

Rashida’s mother eventually yielded to her wishes and agreed to talk to her father for her. At the same time, Bika Kumari Singh, the GATE class facilitator, whom Rashida had spoken to about her problems, also came to meet her parents and convince them to stop the marriage.

The tactic worked: several long discussions and arguments later, Jang Ali finally came around to his daughter’s point-of-view. “It’s not that we want our children to suffer,” he explains. “But living in this community, we are just under so much pressure and burden of responsibility that we feel compelled to do what everyone else does.” He admits that hearing Rashida be so clear and assertive in her reasons for the refusal helped him see the error of his ways. “We have cancelled the marriage.”

A relieved Rashida is now looking forward to completing the GATE course and starting her education in earnest.

“Not only did the GATE class help me understand what I wanted to do with my life, but also gave me the courage to raise my voice against something I knew was wrong.”

Rashida Khatun (centre) stands with her mother Najira Khatun (left) and father Jang Ali Sheikh (right) outside their home in Gaushala Municipality in Mahottari District in eastern Nepal. Najira and Jang Ali had been planning to marry 14-year-old Rashida off, but thanks to a UNICEF-supported non-formal education programme for adolescent girls, she was able to assert herself and cancel the marriage.
UNICEF Nepal/2019/SKLama