A group of child advocates in Nepal, who work in their community to educate others about the dangers of child marriage.
As World Vision Australia’s Regional Portfolio Manager for South Asia, I often get to visit World Vision’s work in the field and see how Australian funds are being used in communities. Recently I visited a Child Protection project in the western part of Nepal, where young community advocates are making great strides in ending the practice of early marriage. The project is implemented by World Vision, working with local partners and is funded by the Australian government.
Meeting the local staff and the young people involved in the project I was amazed to hear that the number one priority for them to work on was early marriage. I thought this was very ambitious issue to tackle given that it is a cultural practice in this remote mountainous area and has been the norm for generations. Early marriage is a major child rights and child protection issue across Nepal, as it is in other countries in South Asia including India, Bangladesh and Indonesia. According to recent reports 29% of girls and 7% of boys in Nepal are married by the age of 19 years – and this is in a country where children under 18 years constitute 43% of the total population.
Changing such traditions can be extremely difficult though, as people consider it to be normal and have not questioned it. They also do not want to go against local custom and are afraid of what their neighbours and leaders may think of them.
I had thought it would have just been easier to start with issues such as the right to education, nutrition, and health care for children. These kinds of underlying issues can play a part in practices like early marriage – which is why World Vision works with communities to find solutions to the many different problems they may face.
Fortunately, in this project the approach of education and advocacy was starting to have an impact on a problem as complex as early marriage. In the local town I met a young woman called Tulsai, who had attended some child protection information sessions provided by the project staff. After learning about the reasons why early marriage should be prevented she confronted her parents and convinced them to postpone her own marriage. As a result she was able to graduate from school and when I met her she was studying Nepalese Literature.
Since they participated in the project, Tulsai and a group of other young people are now confident youth volunteers who spread the message of child rights and in particular why early marriage should be prevented. They support children to speak to the parents when they do not want to be a child bride, and they have written songs and dramas on the subject which they perform during local festivals.
These young people have become confident to speak to parents and leaders in the community about their rights as children.
Changing cultural norms is difficult, takes time and requires community education and understanding about the issues involved. The methods used by Tulsai and the other youth volunteers – such as art and drama – are a good way to get the message into the community. It helps to get conversations started among people as they are receiving new information on the subject. In this culture there are many festivals and performing dramas is a culturally appropriate way of sharing information.
The project also worked with journalists and radio producers to develop messages on the topics related to child protection, including early marriage. This was another avenue through which people were hearing and reading about the subject and their awareness and knowledge was increasing. Having the topic raised through different culturally appropriate means has provided a platform for local community members and leaders to speak out and support child protection and to speak out against early marriage.
Slowly acceptance of the fact that it is good for children to wait until they finish school is gaining ground in these remote village communities – which means more girls will have the chance to finish school before they become wives and mothers.