12 Things To Know About Child Marriage

Chucosqueros school
Fifth Grade Class in Chuchoquesera, Peru. These girls would likely end their formal education with fifth grade, with marriage to follow.

Originally published on World Moms Blog.

My daughter, who recently turned 11, will be graduating from fifth grade in a few weeks.  After the summer break, she will continue on to middle school.  But for 34 million girls in our world today, the completion of primary school likely marked the end of formal education.  It may even have meant that it was time for her to be married.

When I visited the classroom in the Peruvian highlands that is pictured above, I noticed that slightly more than half of the students were girls. I remarked on this fact to the human rights activist who was giving us the tour of this Quechua-speaking indigenous community.  He smiled sadly and said, “Yes, but this is fifth grade.  In sixth grade, children go to a lower secondary school that is farther away.  Most of the girls won’t go.  It takes too long to walk there and they are needed to help at home, so the parents won’t let them go.  Besides, most of them will be married soon.”

Worldwide, more than 700 million women  alive today were married as children. More than 1 in 3 – or some 250 million – were married before the age of 15.  Every year, 15 million girls are married before the age of 18. That averages out to about 28 girls a minute.

Here are a few basic facts that everyone needs to know about child marriage.  

1. Child marriage, also called “child, early and forced marriage”, is a formal marriage or informal union before the age 18. Child marriage also affect boys, but the number of girls who enter into child marriage is disproportionately higher.

2. Child marriage occurs in many countries throughout the world and is practiced by members of many religions.   UNICEF reports that rates of child marriage are highest in South Asia, where nearly half of all girls marry before age 18; about one in six were married or in union before age 15. This is followed by West and Central Africa, then Eastern and Southern Africa, where 42 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively, of women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married in childhood.

3. Child marriage is rooted in gender inequality.  Child marriage is a harmful traditional practice in which a girl child is valued less than a boy by her family and community. Child marriage is also happens because of patriarchal values, including the desire to control female sexuality and reproduction.  According to UNICEF,

Marrying girls under 18 years old is rooted in gender discrimination, encouraging premature and continuous child bearing and giving preference to boys’ education. Child marriage is also a strategy for economic survival as families marry off their daughters at an early age to reduce their economic burden. 

4. Girls from poor families are almost twice as likely to marry young as girls from families with more economic security. Not only are girls from poor families more likely to become child brides, but they’re also more likely to remain poor. Yet, in the context of poverty, families may be acting in what they believe is the best interest of their child by marrying their daughter off at a young age.

5. Girls who marry before they turn 18 are less likely to remain in school. Conversely, girls who stay in school are less likely to marry and have children early and more likely to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.   Educating adolescent girls has been a critical factor in increasing the age of marriage in a number of developing countries, including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Thailand.

6. Girls who marry before 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence.  The International Center for Research on Women reports that child brides often show signs symptomatic of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress such as feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and severe depression.

7. Child marriage results in girls having babies before they are physically or emotionally ready, often with serious health consequences.  According to the World Health Organization, complications related to pregnancy and childbirth are the second highest cause of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 around the world.  Girls under 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their twenties. The infants of young teenage girls are more likely to be stillborn or die in the first month of life. And in developing countries, 90% of adolescent pregnancies  are among married girls

8. Girls who marry before 18 often face a higher risk of contracting HIV because they often marry an older man with more sexual experience.

9.  Child marriage rates increase in the context of conflict and natural disasters. Save The Children has documented that the proportion of registered marriages where the bride was under 18 in the Syrian refugee community in Jordan rose from 12% in 2011 (roughly the same as the figure in pre-war Syria) more than doubled to 25% by 2013.6 The number of Syrian boys registered as married in 2011 and 2012 in Jordan is far lower, suggesting that girls are being married off to older men. Floods increased child marriage in Bangladesh and there is concern that the 2015 earthquakes have increased child marriage in Nepal.

10.  Despite laws against it, the practice of child marriage remains widespread. Child marriage is technically illegal in many countries that have changed their laws to comply with the international standard of 18 as the age of marriage for both boys and girls.  Social norms can be more challenging to change.  In Ethiopia, for example, the legal age of marriage is 18, but nearly one in five girls are married before they turn 15.

11. The United Nations’  Sustainable Development Goals include a greater commitment to ending child marriage. Goal 5 committed to “achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls”. Part of that commitment was a pledge to “eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriages”.

12. Ending child marriage requires work across all sectors and at multiple levels. Evidenced collected by the ICRW shows that it requires: 1)  Empowering girls with information, skills and support networks; 2)  Educating and mobilizing parents and community members; 3) Enhancing the accessibility and quality of formal schooling for girls; 4) Offering economic support and incentives for girls and their families; and 5) Fostering an enabling legal and policy framework.

For more information, resources, and ways to take action, see:

UNICEF

International Center for Research on Women

Girls Not Brides

Too Young To Wed

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“All our SPCS family r safe”

SPCS students enjoying recess.  March 2015. (Credit:  Jennifer Prestholdt)
Students at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School enjoying recess in March, 2015. (Credit: Jennifer Prestholdt)

Originally published on The Advocates’ Post.

“All our SPCS family r safe …”

This was the message I received from Anoop Poudel, headmaster at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School (SPCS), on Monday night. We had been desperately trying to reach Anoop and others connected with SPCS since the 7.8 earthquake devastated Nepal on Saturday, April 25.  Our concern grew as the death toll mounted and the strong aftershocks continued in the Kathmandu Valley. What a relief to learn that the teachers and 340 students at the school, as well as their families, are safe!

The Sankhu-Palubari Community School in the rural Kathmandu Valley, March 2015. (Credit: David Kistle)
The Sankhu-Palubari Community School in the rural Kathmandu Valley, March 2015. (Credit: David Kistle)

In my role as The Advocates for Human Rights’ deputy director, I coordinate The Advocates’ Nepal School Project. I was in Nepal just a few weeks ago with a team of volunteers to conduct our annual monitoring visit. The Advocates has been partnering with the Sankhu-Palubari community since 1999 to provide education as an alternative to child labor for low-income children in the area who would otherwise be working in brick yards or in the fields.

The Sankhu-Palubari Community School provides free, high quality education to children in grades pre-K through 10. Many of the students walk a long way to get to school – some as long as two hours each way.

The students’ standardized test scores are among the highest in Nepal, a highly competitive honor. And the school was awarded Nepal’s prestigious National Education Service Felicitation Award in 2014. Graduates are now studying at universities, preparing to become doctors, social workers, teachers, and agronomists; many plan to return to their village to improve the community’s quality of life. Their contributions will be even more important now, in the aftermath of this devastating earthquake.

Some students walk - up to 2 hours each way - to Sankhu-Palubari Community School to access their right to education.  (Credit: Laura Sandall)
Some students walk – up to 2 hours each way – to Sankhu-Palubari Community School to access their right to education. (Credit: Laura Sandall)

The school is especially important for girls, who make up 52 percent of the student body. When SPCS began, girls often left school at an early age to marry or work. Now, they are staying and graduating because families have experienced the benefits of education. (You can read the inspiring story of SPCS’ first female graduate in Kanchi’s Story.)

First grade student at SPCS (Credit: Jennifer Prestholdt)
First grade student at SPCS (Credit: Jennifer Prestholdt)

The new school year had just started at SPCS, but school was not in session when the earthquake hit. Students in Nepal attend school six days a week; Saturday is the only day when there is no school. Many people believe that, had it been a school day, the numbers of dead and injured in Kathmandu and throughout the Kathmandu Valley could have been much higher.

Even with that one tiny bright spot in a terrible national tragedy, UNICEF estimates that nearly 1.8 million children in Nepal were severely affected by the earthquake. Most of our students, who come from extremely poor agricultural families, are included in that number. Anoop sent me several more texts after the first, describing heavy damage in the area of the eastern Kathmandu Valley where the school is located. Media sources and other Nepali contacts also confirm extensive destruction in the Sankhu area. While we don’t have a lot of information yet, Anoop reported that he believes that more than 90 percent of the students and teachers have lost their homes in the earthquake. They are living outside in temporary shelters because of continuing aftershocks.  Word about the school building’s fate is yet to be received.  The first relief teams are reportedly scheduled to arrive in the area on Wednesday.

Primary students at SPCS (Credit: Jennifer Prestholdt)
Primary students at SPCS (Credit: Jennifer Prestholdt)

Our hearts go out to everyone in our SPCS family, as well as to the millions of other Nepalis affected by the “Black Saturday” earthquake.  At The Advocates, we believe that support for basic human needs such as water, food, and medical assistance in Nepal is the most urgent need at this point in time. We encourage people to give to reputable international humanitarian assistance organizations involved in the earthquake relief effort (you can find more information in the links below). In the long term, Nepal will need sustainable rebuilding and development programs.

Because education is essential to reducing poverty and inequality, the best way that The Advocates can support the rebuilding of Nepal is to is to ensure that the education of the students at our school continues with the least amount of interruption possible. We remain focused on that goal.

To find people in Nepal:

Use the Restoring Family Links tool on the ICRC website to search for a family member or friend in the area hit by the earthquake.

Use Google Person Finder if you are looking for, or have information about, someone in the affected area.

Use Facebook Safety Check to connect with you friends in the area and mark them as safe if you know that they’re ok.

Articles about how to contribute to the earthquake relief effort in Nepal: 

How to Help The Relief Effort in Nepal

Nepal Earthquake: How To Donate

How To Help Nepal: 7 Vetted Charities Doing Relief Work Following the Earthquake

Don’t Rush to Nepal. Read This First. 

Photo of pre-K students at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School (Credit: David Parker)
Photo of pre-K students at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School (Credit: David Parker)

Deputy Director Jennifer Prestholdt interviewing a student.Jennifer Prestholdt is the Deputy Director and International Justice Program Director at The Advocates for Human Rights.  In March 2015, she made her sixth trip to the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in Nepal.

Raising My Voice To #BringBackOurGirls

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My son in a local march to Bring Back Our Girls

On Mother’s Day, I spoke at a local march and rally to show support for the nearly 300 school girls abducted a month ago in Nigeria.

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Here’s what I said:

Bring Back Our Girls Twin Cities March

May 11, 2014

Thanks to organizers and to all of you for being here.

I’m here as a lawyer and Deputy Director of The Advocates for Human Rights, a non-profit based in Minneapolis that works on human rights issues around the world.

But I’m also here as a mother.  My kids Simon and Eliza are here today as well to stand in honor of the nearly 300 girls abducted simply because they were pursuing their human right to education.  I think that’s pretty much the best Mother’s Day gift they could give me.

There are a lot of things that we don’t know about the situation in Nigeria.  We don’t know where the girls are or what is happening to them.  We don’t even know the exact number abducted and we only know a few of their names.  We can only imagine the agony their families are going through.

But the tragedy of the nearly 300 girls in Chibok shines a spotlight on the systemic human rights abuses against faced by women and girls worldwide.

And there are many things we do know about violations of the rights of girls and women:

  • We know that girls around the world lack equal access to basic education  (in the NE region of Nigeria where these girls lived, girl enrollment is the lowest in the country –  only 22%.  In part, they were targeted because they were seeking an education that would change their lives.
  • Educating girls, we know, is one of the strongest ways to improve gender equality.  It is also one the best ways to reduce poverty and promote economic growth and development
  • We know that girls and women are not valued equally as boys and men in many parts of the world.  The Nigerian government’s lack of action both before and after certainly makes it seem that these girls were not deemed worthy of protection.
  • We know that when these girls are found and hopefully rescued, they will need support in the form of psychosocial and health care.  Women’s access to health care is woefully limited.
  • We know that 1 in 3 girls under age 18 are still being forced into marriage too early.  By some estimates, that’s about 14 million girls a year. Too many girls still endure harmful traditional cultural practices such as FGM.
  • We know that girls and women suffer the most in times of conflict.  What these girls have experienced is likely a war crime.  Trafficking remains a huge problem around the world and in our own community.
  • We know that 1 in 3 of the world’s women experience violence, including domestic violence (The Advocates for Human Rights works on domestic violence legal reform around the world);

And we know that these are all things that have to change.

We need to do more to push our governments to make this change a priority.  We can’t stop with just these 276 girls.

Now these are human rights abuses that may seem intractable.  It may seem like you are powerless to make a difference.  But you can:

  • Continue to educate yourself about girls and women’s rights.  Here in the Twin Cities, there are many opportunities.   Through The Advocates for Human Rights alone, you can attend the free St. Paul Public Library Women’s Rights Film series, learn more about the issues on www.StopVAW.org, or participate in our Human Rights Book Club.
  • Support the NGOs that work on issues you care about. No amount is too small – a little money really does go a long way in this area.
  • Write to our members of Congress and the President to encourage support for women’s rights as a critical part of our US foreign policy.
  • For those of you with young people in your lives, teach them about the world around them so that they will grow up to continue the fight to ensure that every child, wherever he or she lives in the world, has the chance to live in safety and dignity and to achieve their greatest human potential.

For those of you doubting whether sharing this story on social media really makes a difference, I’d like to share a message I got on my blog from a woman named Winnie in Nigeria:

we here in nigeria are so angry and feel very helpless, the government and opposition leaders have politicized this, while our daughters are still in captivity. the government officials do not want to listen to ‘ordinary’ people. and word  has it that the Nigerian press have been ordered to kill the story (as the have killed other stories in the past).  pls this is a passionate plea to the international community to keep this story alive until our girls are returned home safely.

Here in the Twin Cities and all around the world, we are working to keep this story alive until our girls are returned home safely.

And after our girls come home, I hope we can keep working together for a future where all girls around the world can go to school in safety and grow up to reach their full human potential.

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Image used with permission of RaSam Photography. Thank you!

 

See also:  Nightmare For Nigeria’s School Girls   originally published on The Advocates Post.

Nightmare for Nigeria’s School Girls

Girls in school in Nigeria Image: Naija247News
Girls in school in Nigeria
Image: Naija247News

 

On the night of April 14, dozens of armed men showed up at the dormitory of the Government Girls Secondary school in Chibok in northeastern Nigeria.  Dressed in Nigerian military uniforms, they told the girls that they were there to take them to safety and herded the girls into trucks and onto motorcycles.  At first, the girls believed them. But when the men started shooting their guns into the air and shouting, “Allahu Akbar,”  they realized that the men were militants from Boko Haram and that they were in serious danger.

Forty-three girls managed to escape by running away or jumping out of the trucks. But as many as 234 school girls between the ages of 12 and 17 were kidnapped, disappearing into the night without a trace. (Update 5/4/14: it is now believed that as many at 276 girls were abducted.) Two weeks later, their parents still have no idea where they are. And yesterday, village elders from Chibok told reporters that they had received information that the abducted girls were taken across the borders to Chad and Cameroon and sold as brides to Islamist militants for 2,000 naira (about $12).

While unconfirmed, these reports are a chilling reminder of the threat of sexual violence faced by women and girls in conflict zones. 

The girls who were abducted were targeted simply because they were exercising their right to go to school, out of the ordinary for a girl in Nigeria. Access to basic education for girls has remained low, particularly in the northern region which has the  lowest girl child enrollment in Nigeria —in 2008 the net enrollment rate for girls into secondary school was only 22 percent.  The girls (who were both Christian and Muslim) at the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok must each have been determined to get an education in spite of tremendous odds.  The fact that these girls were also risking violence to be in school illustrates how important the right to education was to each of them.

How could this happen? And why?
Boko Haram is a violent insurgent group that has killed thousands of people since 2009, purportedly in an attempt to establish an Islamist state in northern Nigeria. Although the Nigerian government has issued a state of emergency in three northern states, attacks on villages in northern Nigeria have displaced more than 470,000 people—mostly women and children, according to the UN High Commissioner for RefugeesSince early 2014, Boko Haram’s attacks have been increasingly violent, targeting remote villages, markets, hospitals, and schools.  Boko Haramis responsible for at least 1500 deaths so far in 2014.

Boko Haram also has a history of taking hostages as “slaves.” In May 2013, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Sheku released a video saying that Boko Haram had taken women and children, including teenage girls, as hostages as part of its latest campaign. These hostages would be treated as “slaves,” he said.  This has raised concern among the family members of those abducted that “Boko Haram is adhering to the ancient Islamic belief that women captured during war are slaves with whom their ‘masters’ can have sex.  Regardless of alleged rationale, enslavement, imprisonment, forced labor, rape and sexual slavery are all serious violations of international law.  They are defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as crimes against humanity.

The group has repeatedly attacked schools in northern Nigeria. Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden”  in the Hausa language. Boko Haram has set schools on fire and detonated bombs at university campus churches. In early February, armed gunmen abducted 20 female students at Goverment Girls Science College in the village of Konduga. On February 24, 2014, members of Boko Haram attacked and killed more than 40 male students at Federal Government College in Buni Yadi village and abducted an unknown number of female students. After these attacks, many schools in northeastern Nigeria were closed. The school where the abductions took place was closed as well, but local education officials decided to briefly reopen the Chibok school to allow the girls to take their exams.  

The mass kidnapping  in April was unprecedented and shocking. Even more shocking – after more than two weeks, the Nigerian government has done very little to find and rescue the girls.

The lack of government response has provoked outrage in Nigeria. On Wednesday, several hundred participated in a “million-woman protest march” in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital to demand that more resources be put toward finding and securing the kidnapped girls. The protesters in Nigeria are joined on Twitter with a growing movement under the hashtags #BringBackOurGirls, #BringBackOurDaughters and #234Girls. There is also a Change.org petition to Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan asking him to do more to save the abducted girls and ensure that schools in Nigeria are safe.

One man, whose daughter was abducted along with his two nieces, said his wife has hardly slept since the attack. She lies awake at night “thinking about our daughter”.  As the mother of a young school girl myself, I feel deeply for her. The continuing tragedy of these young Nigerian school girls is every parent’s worst nightmare.

It’s time for world to wake up to the escalating violence in Nigeria, as well as the Nigerian government’s lack of response.

Originally published on The Advocates Post.

 

Haikus With My Daughter III: Girls Rights

My heart yearns for you

To live – equal – to your full

human potential.

It’s a challenge to raise a daughter in a society that innundates us with countless hidden messages about how girls should look and act, who they should be.    My daughter and I have been talking about this a lot lately, with the holiday marketing of “girls toys” and “boys toys” so in our faces.   So I was pleasantly surprised this week when she found a women’s rights message hidden in Captain Underpants and The Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers.

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Captain Underpants.

The bully battle begins!

(Secret feminism.)

You go, girl! You just go and go and GO!

This post, Haikus With My Daughter , Haikus With My Daughter II  and Thanksgiving are a response to the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge.

The Human Rights Lesson

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I spent some time in my daughter’s classroom last week talking to the second graders about human rights.  I’ve been a guest speaker in all of my kids’ classrooms and have done this presentation (a kind of human rightsy mash-up of show-and-tell and career day) pretty much every year since my oldest was in second grade.  But this time was different.  I discovered the night before I was scheduled to speak in her class that my daughter, who just turned 8, was planning to do the presentation on human rights WITH me.

I have a more-or-less standard routine and she knew it well.  (I wrote a post called Same and Different about doing this human rights lesson in my sons’ classrooms.)  First, I do an activity that I call Same and Different.  I have several photos from West Africa that I had blown up and mounted on foamcore.  I show the kids a photo and have them point out what they see in the picture that is the same in their lives and what is different.  It always generates great discussion and often the kids see things in the photos and make connections that I never did.  Hopefully, by showing that all humans have similarities in spite of our differences, it also plants some seeds of respect and tolerance.

When I got to her classroom, my daughter brought her small plastic chair to the front of the class and set it down firmly right next to mine.  After introducing me (with the class microphone), she sat down beside me.  She had assigned herself the assistant’s job of holding the photos for all to see while I led the discussion.  A couple of times I had to remind her to hold the photo out so that all the kids could see, but overall she did a great job.

The next activity I do is to pass around a selection of items that I have picked up on my travels for work.  As we pass them around so that everyone gets a chance to touch them, we again discuss what is the same and different in our lives.  This time, I didn’t gather a thing for the activity; my daughter collected everything the night before our presentation.  A yak wool blanket from Nepal, a wooden statue of  a traditional palava hut from Liberia, coins and bills from Cameroon – all went into a bag I had brought her from Ghana.  She even added her pink beaded pointy-toed slippers from Morocco.  When I reminded her that she would have to share and let everyone touch them and try them on,  she hesitated for a moment.  In the end, though, her slippers went into the bag.

To close out the presentation, I usually read a children’s book or two about human rights.  I have a couple of favorites.  For Every Child, A Better World by Kermit the Frog is one that we own two copies of, but of course we couldn’t find either when we needed it.  I went to library to check out a copy and discovered shelved right beside it I Have the Right to Be a Child by Alain Serres.  This beautifully illustrated book presents the concept of human rights, especially those of children as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

When I brought the books home from the library, I asked my daughter,

“Which do you want me to read to your class?”

“I want to read them both,” she said.

She did a beautiful job of reading both books to the class.  I was so proud that I teared up, right there in front of all the second graders and their teacher.

In some ways, it is easier to talk to kids about human rights than adults.  Because children generally see things in terms of black and white, right and wrong, it is easy for them to understand that we all have rights – the right to voice our opinions, to go to school, to be free from violence.  The right to have food and shelter and clean air and water.  The thing about kids is that they have a very strong natural sense of justice (as it applies to them, at least) they understand the inequities of a world where not everyone is able to access those rights.

One girl  came up and hugged me after the human rights lesson.

“It makes me sad,” she said, “to think that not all kids have enough to eat.”

“What you are feeling is empathy,” said the teacher.  “And that’s good.”

Knowing about the problem – caring about it and wanting to do something about it – is the first step towards change.

The last thing I heard as I left the classroom was another little girl saying,

“I think I am going to write a letter to President Obama and ask him why we are not part of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

There are a lot of things about working in human rights that are not easy, but this was a very  good day!

More ideas for human rights activities to do with children:

10 Things to Do With Your Kids on Human Rights Day

10 More Things to Do With Your Kids on Human Rights Day

Same and Different

INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE GIRL: Kanchi’s Story

Every morning when I come into work, I am greeted by the smiling face of a young girl. Her hair is pulled neatly back into two braids, glossy black against her pink hairbands.  Her eyes, dark and alert, shine at me – I swear I can see them twinkle.

She wears the blue uniform of her school, the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in rural Nepal.  The Advocates for Human Rights supports the school to provide the right to education to the most disadvantaged kids in the area and to prevent them from becoming involved in child labor.  Photographs from the school hang on the walls of our office, reminders to us of the lives that we impact with our human rights work.

Even though I see her every day, until last month I had never met this cheerful young girl, a girl whose smile – even in a photo – comes from her core, seems to light her entire being. Until last month, I did not know that her name was Kanchi.  And I had never heard her incredible story.

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In 1999, Kanchi was six years old.  She lived with her family in a village in the Kathmandu Valley.  Her parents were poor farmers; they had only a little land and some cattle and they struggled to feed their family.  Kanchi was the youngest of six sisters.  She and her sisters (and also her  brother) had to help their parents in the fields and with household chores.  Kanchi’s job was also to take the cattle to the forest to graze.   Kanchi did not go to school.   There were many children in Nepal that did not go to school at that time, but girls, like Kanchi, were more likely than boys to work rather than go to school – particularly in rural areas like the Suntole district where she lived.

Kanchi was a very smart and determined little girl.  She wanted to go to school.   So when she heard that a new school was opening in the Sankhu-Palubari community – a school for kids who were not able to go to school because they couldn’t pay or were discriminated against – she was very excited.  She rushed off to tell her parents.  But her parents, who had never themselves been educated, were not as excited as Kanchi.  Why should they let her go to school?  Who would help feed the family? Why should they send her to school if she was only going to get married in a few years anyway?

Kanchi says that she cried for a month and begged her parents to let her go to school.  One day, teachers from the new school came to visit Kanchi’s parents to talk to them about the school. The teachers explained that it would help THEM if Kanchi could read and write.  They explained why it was important for all children to go to school, even girls.  They told them that all children – even the poorest, the lowest-caste, members of indigenous groups – had a right to education.

Kanchi’s older sisters, who had never had the opportunity to go to school, took her side. Instead getting an education, they had all married young and were working in the fields.  Kanchi’s sisters argued that Kanchi should go to school, take this opportunity for a life that would be different from theirs.  Finally, their parents agreed to let Kanchi go to school.

Kanchi started at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in 1999, one of 39  students in the first kindergarten class.  To get to school, Kanchi had to walk one and a half hours each way.  There were many other obstacles along the way, too.  At various times, her parents wanted her to stop school and help them with farming.  But she stayed in school and worked hard. She told her parents,  “I want to do something different from the others.”

Kanchi liked her teachers and felt supported by them.  She felt that the best thing about the school was the teaching environment.  She stayed in school and was one of only two girls in the first class to graduate from 8th grade.  She continued on to high school and completed 12th grade at  Siddhartha College of Banepa in 2012.  The first in her family to go to school, Kanchi is also the first girl from the Sankhu-Palubari Community School to graduate from 12th grade.

I met Kanchi for the first time in September.  Almost exactly 13 years after this brave little girl started kindergarten, she is a lovely young woman who is preparing for her university entrance exams.  She plans to study agriculture  starting in January.   Her parents are proud of her and they are happy now – she has chosen the family profession – but Kanchi is interested in learning more about organic farming so she can bring techniques back to her village.  “I want to live a healthy life and give a healthy life to others,” she says.

Sitting in the principal’s office at Sankhu-Palubari Community School, I asked her what the school meant to her.  Kanchi said, “I gained from this school my life.  If I hadn’t learned to read and write, I would be a housewife.”  When asked about her sisters, she told me that they had made sure to send their own children to school.

In her free time, Kanchi likes to sing and dance and make handicrafts to decorate her room.  She likes to play with her sisters’ children.  She has a smile that lights the whole world.  She told me her nickname, Himshila.  She smiled when she told me it means “mountain snow, strong rock”.  Strong rock.  That seems just about right.

*****

October 11, 2012 is the first International Day of the Girl Child.  The United Nations has designated this day to promote the rights of girls, highlight gender inequalities and the challenges girls face, and address discrimination and abuse suffered by girls around the globe.  In many ways, the story of Kanchi and her sisters reflects the experience of girls in many countries throughout the world.  All over the world, girls are denied equal access to education, forced into child labor, married off at a young age, pressured to drop out of school because of their gender.

There are many good reasons to ensure access to education for girls like Kanchi, however. Educating girls is one of the strongest ways to improve gender equality.  It is also one the best ways to reduce poverty and promote economic growth and development.

“Investing in girls is smart,” says World Bank President, Robert Zoellick. “It is central to boosting development, breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, and allowing girls, and then women—50 percent of the world’s population—to lead better, fairer and more productive lives.”

The International Day of the Girl is a day to recommit ourselves to ensuring that girls like Kanchi have the chance to live their lives to their fullest possible potential.  To redouble our efforts to promote the rights of girls wherever they live in the world.   This first International Day of the Girl is also a day to honor girls like Kanchi.  A day to take the story of her success in one tiny corner of Nepal and shout it out, an inspiration for girls all around the world.  Girls like Kanchi with the strength, the bravery, the determination to change the world, but who  just need the opportunity.

Originally published on The Advocates Post.