Out of her shell
Young girls campaigning against child marriage.
Rautahat, Nepal – When 17-year-old Asmita Kumari Chaudhary learned about the impending marriages of two of her fellow students, she felt she had to intervene. Like her, Sekh Jamser Aalam was a ninth-grader at the Shree Secondary School in Kanakpur in Rautahat District near Nepal’s southern border, and Osed Aalam was even younger, only in grade six. As president of the school’s Junior Champions’ Club and trained to respond to precisely these kinds of situations, she knew she could not sit idly by. She decided it would be best to drop a note in the complaint box that had been set up at the school.
The note was brought out and discussed at the meeting of the Complaint Hearing Committee, where it was determined that an officer should be sent to the boys’ homes. It wasn’t easy to convince the parents in one single go, so Asmita recommended that the ward president get involved in the effort. Eventually, the matter was resolved: the parents agreed to stop the marriages, and allow their sons to continue going to school.
“I never thought I’d be able to make a tangible difference in someone’s life like that,” Asmita says. “It gave me a real sense of responsibility and a boost of confidence.”
Indeed, confidence had been precisely the quality Asmita had felt she was lacking for many years before joining the Junior Champions’ Club. The longer she went to school, the more she had begun to notice the ways in which girls and women are discriminated against in the Tharu community to which she belonged. By the time she reached the ninth grade, Asmita’s eyes had opened to the myriad social norms in her own community that deprived women of the same opportunities as men.
But when it came to actually speaking out about all these backward beliefs and the harmful practices they gave rise to – child marriage in particular – Asmita was too scared to step forward and do something about it. Until, that is, she became deeply involved with a new programme that was introduced at her school, which helped her emerge out of her shell.
Asmita’s school is part of the "Zero Tolerance – GBV Free Schools in Nepal" initiative, a collaborative effort between UNICEF and USAID to reduce the prevalence of school-related gender-based violence (GBV) in Nepal and establish child- and adolescent-friendly procedures to respond to incidents of GBV. Since 2016, the project is being implemented in 200 schools in four central Terai districts, namely Parsa, Rautahat, Dhanusha and Mahottari. Among the different components that came under the programme’s support was the formation of a Junior Champions’ Club. Asmita was elected president of the club, and as such, got to participate in several capacity-building activities along with other club members and a few teachers.
As part of their training, the participants learned about GBV and related attitudes and practices, and importantly, the impact of these on children’s present and future prospects. They also discussed means by which the club could help to combat these ills, through both awareness campaigns and by setting up a proper referral mechanism.
The association with the club had a transformative effect on Asmita, who quickly blossomed into a self-assured young leader. Under her initiation, the school has organized dramas, rallies and door-to-door campaigns against child marriage and other forms of GBV. Not to mention, her quick actions which helped to prevent the marriages of her two schoolmates.
For all her work on promoting grassroots advocacy against social malpractices, and for being such a tremendous role model for girls in her community, Asmita has been honored with a certificate from the District Administration Office and the Child Welfare Committee.
“She used to be very introverted and shy, but it’s been incredible to witness the change in her, and the way she takes the lead in all these campaigns and initiatives,” Manoj Kumar Yadav, head teacher at Shree Secondary School, says. “She has made us very proud.”