‘I am changed’
Thanks to a UNICEF-supported intervention, a young boy in western Nepal is able to fight the traps of child labor and child marriage, and return to his rightful place in the classroom
Kapilvastu, Nepal: By the time he had turned 15, Laxman* from Kapilvastu District in western Nepal had already lost both his parents. All his elder siblings were married and living separately, and Laxman was left alone to grieve in their family home. With no one around to support him financially, the young boy was forced to start working to earn a living.
Laxman was hired as a labourer by villagers to work on their farms during the planting and harvesting seasons. Besides this, he also found odd jobs in construction around the village. The more he worked, the more classes he was missing, the less interested Laxman was becoming in his studies.
The young boy’s problems only escalated in 2020, when the country was enveloped by the COVID-19 pandemic. Jobs were no longer available, and Laxman – now more desperate than ever – was surviving on whatever minimal support he received from his relatives and villagers.
“I got no help or encouragement from anyone at home or the community,” Laxman says. “I was frustrated with life.”
His physical and mental health strained thus to the limit, school had become almost an afterthought for Laxman at this point; he didn’t feel he would be able to go back full time. Instead, he was making plans to leave for India in the hopes of finding a job there.
Fortunately, before he could act on those plans, he was contacted by a social worker from the Siddhartha Social Development Centre (SSDC), UNICEF’s partner organization. Laxman was included in the list of school absentees developed through a vulnerability assessment that was being conducted in the area, to identify children at risk of becoming trapped in child labour.
Under a joint effort between UNICEF and SSDC, and following rounds of conversations and visits to better understand his situation and needs, Laxman received immediate relief in the form of food and clothes, as well as support with his education. This included coordination with his school management, which eventually agreed to waive his school fees.
Given the state of desperation and mental stress they had found him in, social workers also spent considerable time counselling Laxman personally, motivating him to return to school. Under their focused attention, Laxman began to gain confidence, and a desire to recommit to his education.
“The timing was just right,” he says. “I was in such pain before I met the social worker.”
Once Laxman was back in the classroom, he was also selected to be part of a 10-day training of peer leaders as part of the school-based Rupantaran programme, being implemented by SSDC with UNICEF support. Rupantaran is a comprehensive training package designed by UNICEF and UNFPA to equip adolescent girls and boys with key social and financial skills. The programme is being rolled out across the country under the UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to End Child Marriage, with generous funding support from the Governments of Belgium, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and the UK, the European Union and Zonta International.
For Laxman, the Rupantaran training proved eye-opening and life-changing in a very real way. On the fourth day – after having held numerous discussions with the trainers and his peers on a range of topics such as child rights, the dangers of child marriage and other social issues affecting adolescents – he had gone home to be offered a marriage proposal to a young girl, arranged by his extended family. Fortified by all that he had learned in the last few days, however, Laxman was able to hold strong against his family’s pressure and refuse to go through with the marriage.
“My relatives, my brother, they were angry with me,” he says. “But I knew I was making the right decision, because I was saving both myself and this innocent girl from the cruel consequences of child marriage.”
Laxman has since been attending classes regularly and is currently preparing for his grade 10 secondary education examinations or SEE. He also facilitates weekly Rupantaran sessions for a group of grade 9 and 10 students at his school.
Laxman says the difference between where he had been when the pandemic first began, and his mindset today after returning to school and going through the training, is vast.
“I feel like I understand better now that life has ups and downs,” he says. “I have gained so many new skills and perspectives – I am changed. I look forward to passing these on to my peers.”