“If nobody stops child marriage, we will"
Highlights from the Rupantaran peer learning and support model in Nepal
Kapilvastu, Nepal - It’s a cool spring morning in Kapilvastu, Nepal. The orange sun is not yet high in the sky and it’s a school holiday, so the streets are quieter than usual. But at the local community center, there are excited voices and a buzz in the air. A group of adolescent girls and boys—peer and community facilitators at the UNICEF-supported “Rupantaran” programme—are meeting.
Rupantaran, meaning “transformation”, was developed by UNICEF, UNFPA and partners, including government and local civil society organizations, in response to high rates of child marriage in Nepal. Almost a third of girls are married before they turn 18.
Targeting adolescent girls aged 10-19, the Rupantaran curriculum aims to equip girls with communication and other important life skills, with a focus on boosting girls’ confidence, and supporting girls to be changemakers and leaders in their community.
By engaging girls in focus groups once a week for six to 12 months, accompanied by peer support and counselling, Rupantaran forms a core part of UNICEF’s efforts to prevent child marriage, support girls’ voice, leadership and agency and link them to available services.
Rupantaran peer facilitators help establish girl groups to share their experiences, access information and knowledge about their rights, and benefit from targeted skills training. The programme is successfully being rolled out in Nepal with a target to reach 8000 adolescent girls annually.
“I have felt my own transformation over these last few months,” says Rekha, a 15-year-old peer facilitator.
“My mother left us when I was younger, and I always felt so sad. Then I started doing activities with Rupantaran. It gave me a chance to talk with girls my age. Now, I have so many friends. I feel proud to make my community stronger. Everyone in the community knows me.”
Rekha, like many of her fellow facilitators, has successfully managed to intervene in cases of potential child marriage, by engaging in dialogue with parents in the community.
“Girls should have the same rights as boys. They should go to school. If nobody stops child marriage, we will. We will make the change.”
“I feel so good about what I am doing now to stop child marriage,” says Rachana, 17 years, who is also a peer facilitator. “When I wear my UNICEF jacket in the community, people recognize me and respect me.”
When Rachana first started attending Rupantaran, she felt too shy to speak up or participate but after a few sessions, she found her voice: “I was surprised at myself. Now, I have more than 40 girls in my group. I wish I could expand with more.”
Rima, 16 years, jumps in: “I used to shiver when I spoke in front of other people, but now I am actually helping other people. I want to study more and one day work for a women’s organization. I want to fight for change in society. I want to help girls like me, those that get left behind.”
“Our vision is for Rupantaran to be in every school and for every girl who is not in school to have access to these resources. Confident, empowered girls make for stronger communities and a more prosperous Nepal,” says Pragya Shah Karki, a Child Protection Specialist with UNICEF Nepal.
Almost half of all Nepali women are not in education, employment or training (NEET) compared with one in five men. This disparity begins in adolescence. Bringing every girl back to school and back to learning the skills she needs is a crucial part of UNICEF’s vision in Nepal, but child marriage presents a significant threat.
“Girls face all kinds of violence here in Nepal and it gets worse when they are married,” says Upama Malla, Child Protection Officer with UNICEF Nepal. A quarter of all Nepali girls and women have experienced violence by their partner. Norms justifying violence are prevalent. That’s why UNICEF, in line with the organization’s Gender Action Plan 2022-2025, is investing in programmes that tackle underlying norms holding girls and women back through more transformative approaches. This includes a more deliberate focus on supporting girls’ leadership and power.
“We need programmes that center girls voice and leadership and connect to other services, like adolescent health and nutrition. And we need more partnerships with women and girls’ rights organizations who are a lifeline to girls and women,” says Upama.
Rupantaran can change this. In Nepal, the programme has already been rolled out nationally at the cost of just only US $10 per girl when delivered in schools, though it has also effectively reached out-of-school girls in remote, rural and other schools, including religious schools not formally recognized by the Ministry of Education. This diverse curriculum is aimed to be adaptable across contexts and will potentially be available for adaptation to other countries. UNICEF and partners hope to carry out a full evaluation of the programme in 2023 to support future scale-up and replication.
 2019 data, UNICEF
 45.8% of women and 21% of men in Nepal are not in education, employment or training (NEET), 2017 data, source: World Bank Gender Data Portal
 Gender Counts (South Asia), UNICEF
Lauren Rumble is the Associate Director for UNICEF's Gender Equality Programme Group