The last time I was in Nepal was in the early 1970s. I spent five years working there when I was just starting out my career in international development. Now, as a member of the board of directors for Plan International USA, I went back to Nepal just a few weeks ago to see a variety of Plan’s program activities. I was often asked on the trip about the changes I could see, then vs. 45 years ago. There were many, and they were extraordinary.
I have to start with the obvious: the staggering urbanization in Kathmandu Valley – the congestion and the traffic – as well as the vibrant, bustling economy we saw in Banke District, where we spent most of our time. When I arrived in Nepal in 1970, there were about 225,000 people in Kathmandu; today, the city extends much further with more than 2.5 million residents. Where I once saw rice paddies, I now saw new buildings, cars, and motorcycles. I certainly wouldn’t drive my old Honda-90 motorbike in today’s Kathmandu!
As mind-blowing as these changes were, I was most impressed by the expanding advocacy and voice of adolescent girls. The girls I met in Nepal have an intense commitment to promote social change and improve the lives of people, whether working independently or in partnership with civil society and local governments. And Plan International is playing a huge role in supporting the growth of these young women.
In Banke District, we saw young women who had been rescued from bonded servitude (the Kamalari System) and given the opportunity to complete grade 12 and gain good paying jobs. I will not soon forget that Sona, who now works for a cooperative, has bought property with her savings and is well on her way to becoming an entrepreneur.
We also met with several adolescent girl groups and heard girl after girl talk of how they are using their voices to promote change. They are working with their own families to end isolation and discrimination when they have their menstrual periods; they are joining together to rally against child marriage and other harmful social practices. They have learned that the declaration of new policies by government is not enough, that there must be action – and, if not, that they must speak up.
The girls spoke so clearly to us about the rights they now know they have, whether for education, health, justice, or non-discrimination. They have organized “days of activism” against domestic violence, and when hearing about a rape in a town several hours away, they organized to argue for justice. They have reached out to journalists to discuss why the child marriage age should not be lowered from age 20. They are learning how to be entrepreneurs and have created savings groups. Perhaps most importantly, they have laid out clear visions for the future. They want girls (and other children) to have more education, better lives, good jobs in Nepal (rather than feeling the need to go abroad for work), and equal opportunity regardless of ethnic background or gender. They have asked their mothers about the dreams they had when they were teenagers, and then spoke of their own dreams and desire not to marry until they are between 20 and 25 years old. These young women know what they want – and they clearly articulate it.
I was especially impressed by the efforts of these youth leaders and their local civil society partners, such as Plan International Nepal and SAATHI, to advocate to and work with local government officials. We heard the deputy mayor of Kohalpur Municipality and leaders from Wards 12 and 13 lay out their strategies to end child marriage and human trafficking.
Particularly memorable was seeing the community radio journalist named Anu interview the chairman of Ward 12 and quiz him about his office’s efforts to end child marriage. She drilled in on the key question: has he allocated budget? By the end of the interview, he committed to making his Ward free of child marriage within a year. The chairman of Ward 13 was present, and he also asked for an opportunity to speak about the strategies of his Ward to overcome cultural obstacles and end child marriage – and he quickly added that he has allocated budget to support their efforts.
These young women are making a difference in their communities and playing roles vastly different than what I saw 45 years ago in Nepal. No longer are girls sitting quietly, hesitant to speak. Now, they feel the confidence to come together in networks and advocate for change, whether it is ending child marriage and human trafficking, expanding educational and job opportunities, or confronting climate change.
Seeing these remarkable young women – and how vastly different they are from the reticent teenage girls I saw 45 years ago – I can’t help but marvel about some of the extraordinary women I did have an opportunity to work with all those years ago. Knowing how much these women achieved in spite of the obstacles they faced, I feel very confident that today’s growing pool of young Nepali women will lead to a stronger and better Nepal. And I am proud that Plan International is supporting these champions of change.