Defining her destiny

In Nepal’s south, a young girl on her way to becoming a child bride reaches out to her school for help in stopping her impending marriage.

Child marriage drawing
07 March 2019

Rautahat, Nepal: Some months ago, Janaki Sah (name changed) took a step that would change her life.

The 14-year-old eighth grader goes to a secondary school in her home village in Rautahat District, in Nepal’s southern plains. In class, she is generally a force to be reckoned with, a bright student who gets good grades and always has something to contribute to discussions.

For some time, however, teachers and friends had noticed something wasn’t quite right with Janaki. She appeared depressed, was not interested in interacting with people the way she used to, and had suddenly stopped smiling. Friends say they would often find her crying.

The truth emerged when the school management found a note that Janaki had written and dropped in the school’s Suggestion Box. As it turned out, what had been bothering her this whole time was her impending marriage, set up by her family. This is common in this village, like in so many others across Nepal, where school-going girls are often pressured by their families to drop out and get married.

Janaki, though, wasn’t ready to give in. And so, she had decided to use the Suggestion Box as a way of reaching out to the school and request their support to stop the marriage before it was too late

"It was easier to write down my problems rather than going up to talk directly to a teacher or the principal.It was much less scary."

Child marriage skit
UNFPA-UNICEF Nepal/2018/KPanday
On 21 June 2018 in Nepal, Renuka Kumari Choudhary (left and seated), Rakesh Kumar Shah (right and seated) and other adolescents in Gujara Municipality of Rautahat District perform a skit on child marriage as part of UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme on Ending Child Marriage. The Global Programme, funded by the governments of Canada, the European Union the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, supports 12 countries - Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Mozambique, Nepal, Niger, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Yemen and Zambia in ending child marriage and ensuring the rights of girls are upheld.

This is precisely the purpose of the Suggestion Box, a school-based reporting mechanism that has been set up in selected schools in 10 districts in the Terai with UNICEF support. The box is intended to allow students to raise their concerns, file complaints and offer recommendations without having to communicate openly with adults, which can be intimidating. The sense of confidentiality it provides encourages children to speak up on matters they normally would not feel comfortable discussing in person.

After seeing Janaki’s note, the school sent out for a social worker to stage an intervention on Janaki’s behalf. The social worker came to the school and met with her. Once they had all the details, the social worker also visited Janaki’s parents, along with members of the school management, the ward chairperson and other community leaders, to convince them not to marry off their daughter.

The tactic worked: Janaki’s parents relented and agreed to let her return to school.

Now back in class with her friends, Janaki recalls the day she decided to drop that note with immense relief, saying she doesn’t know where she would’ve been today if she had not gotten up the nerve to do it.

“Because I was brave enough, I’m able to do what I love the most – study!” she says with glee.

Adolescent girls
Adolescent girls attending an interaction session on child marriage at their school in Rautahat

Through 7: The David Beckham UNICEF Fund (DB7), more than 200 schools in the Terai will have established mechanisms to help girls like Janaki stay in school by empowering them to make decisions that affect their lives, through life skills training and sports, among other interventions. Teachers will be train to identify psychosocial/mental health issues among students, thereby developing community-based psychosocial workers and linking students with these workers as well as health posts. The campaign seeks to prevent potential child marriages and provide psychosocial support for students who are exposed to violence, including in the form of early marriages.