Federal Politics


Letting girls be girls

I am desperately trying to make Skype work. I click the little green phone handle again and again and it rings once or twice and then stops.

With my Mac on my kitchen table and my single origin coffee in my cup, I think I should be able to get anywhere and talk to anybody.

Finally, I give up and use my home phone to make the call. The voice is faint and crackling down the other end. First he tells me to ring a mobile number with so many digits it can't be right. It rings through to a voice message not in any language I understand. That happens three times. I ring the first number. The man tells me Indu has gone to work. He gives me another number. I try Skype again.

It works. I am talking to Indu Pant in Nepal. She's had to go in to work on a Saturday to speak to me because she couldn't guarantee that the power would work at home. The electricity doesn't always work. And it doesn't work every day. Indu rescues girls. It's what she does for a living as the gender program co-ordinator for CARE International. And usually she goes about her business barely talking to anyone outside Nepal about the work she does. But this Thursday is International Day of the Girl and she wants to make it count.

What does it mean to be a girl in the developed world? You will certainly find sexism and a lack of equality when it comes to work. And when you go into the workforce as a woman it's unlikely you'll get into senior management with the speed and ease of your male peers. But when it comes to marriage, no-one will make you do it. And if your parents start to beg you to get married, it will be because you're 35 and they think they will never be grandparents.

But Nepalese girls have a very different challenge. Nearly two-thirds marry before they are 18. More than 7 per cent are married by the time they are 10.


Indu tells me this and I feel sick. At 10, girls should be girls. Running. Dancing. Reading. Hanging out with their friends. But in Nepal, it doesn't work like that. But change is coming - and that's because of women like Indu. She's at the forefront of a campaign to change the lives of girls in her country. And she started with Siva.

Siva was a regular Nepalese girl in the plains country, near the border with India. She was doing pretty well at school when her father told her that he wanted her to get married. Siva was just 14 years old. It was in direct opposition to the wishes of Siva's mother. I know you will be thinking: ''Well, it's the Nepalese culture and should be allowed to continue in the way it has through the ages.''

But the fact is, Nepalese women have had enough, too. They don't want their daughters married off before they've had the chance to have a wider experience of life, an education, work. Enter what Indu calls the Child Marriage Eradication Committee. Truly, it sounds like a bunch of people living in a developed country hanging around a board table in an office. Utter busybodies, is what it actually sounds like.

The facts are really quite different. CARE International works very hard to engage women and men in villages across Nepal to attain what a psychologist might call a buy-in, which is the need for the community to step up and protect the lives of their girls and women.

The CMEC educates people about the laws in Nepal. Child marriage is illegal. But more importantly, those men and women who are from the village persuade the community about the importance of setting girls free.

I'm loving the scene that Indu paints for me, of Siva's father being persuaded by the group of elders from his own village. He was not too pleased.

Siva is now 16 and still single. It was she who finally told her father that she wasn't ready; and wanted to stay at school.

Indu's gig really is a tough one. Child marriage is an accepted cultural practice and the figures show just how standard it is in the community. But CARE is doing its level best to change that across communities Dhanusha, Mahottari and Rupandehi districts of Nepal. Most importantly, it was through this project of Indu's that CARE worked with more than 300,000 families from poor and socially excluded communities to stop the practice of child marriage.

They did it with kids Siva's age, with women who were young leaders; with community groups and in schools to help Nepalese women challenge community expectations.

And here is the good news: the number of families willing to delay marriage of their daughters beyond 18 years of age more than doubled (from 40 per cent to 90 per cent).

It's something we can all help with by supporting CARE in its work. I really can't believe that I'm supporting a delay of marriage. Please don't quote me to my children.

■ Follow me on Twitter @jennaprice or email jenna-p@bigpond.net.au.