As COVID-19 continues to affect every facet of our lives throughout the world, it continues to expose new weaknesses in our systems and vulnerabilities in our society. As an organization with the mission of empowering through education, the school closures as a result of quarantine measures in Nepal, is a direct impact to our work. Unlike more developed nations where students may have an opportunity to gain some learning through virtual classes, this is beyond a dream for most of the girls we work with. As unfortunate as this is, it was to be expected given our lack of a proper technical infrastructure and high levels of poverty in the communities we work in. However, there are other side effects of COVID-19 that have become much bigger problems for girls in Nepal and pose a huge challenge for our foundation. This month, we would like to talk about COVID-19, school closures and its effect on child marriage.
As an example, Room to Read, a leading NGO in Nepal promoting girl’s education, reported that out of 4,321 girls that it monitors in various districts of Nepal, close to 500 are not responding after the school shutdown. Room to Read fears that most of the girls that are no longer in contact may become victims of child marriage and even human trafficking. After their investigation, Room to Read discovered that some of the girls that they lost touch with had indeed eloped during the school closure.
Historically, child marriage, both through elopement and traditional arranged marriage, increases during a long vacation after the end of the academic year. Perhaps this is not a surprise then because COVID-19 has basically forced a “long vacation” for many students. On a somewhat positive note, we have observed that due to a stricter law on child marriage in Nepal, child marriage through arranged marriage continues to be in decline, however, the incidence of elopement has not declined. Most of the schools do not inquire about their students during the school break, and this lack of scrutiny is considered one of the causes of the child marriage. We know that the primary reasons behind child marriage is extreme poverty and a sense of hopelessness, but we also believe that if schools were better able to stay in touch with students during breaks, it could reduce child marriage.
Our experience in the communities we work in, along with various studies on this topic, show that keeping the girls in school has been one of the most effective tools against child marriage in Nepal. We have observed that the incidence of child marriage has been decreasing in the rural areas where we operate. We believe that there are multiple factors for this. Firstly, the stricter law against child marriage forces families to reconsider child marriage, but without hope for a better future for their girl child, the law is not motivation enough. This is where the foundation’s initiatives, such as keeping the girls in school through scholarship, instilling hope through mentoring and promoting health through nutrition programs has motivated not just the girls to stay in school, but also the parents to keep them in school. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has wrecked these initiatives for now, and we have been forced to halt or scale down these programs for close to three months. The prolonged shutdown of the school and economic hardship due to the nationwide lockdown may trigger a higher incidence of child marriage in underprivileged area like rural Pharping because a sense of hopelessness and desperation is starting to creep back in.
We know that regular communication with the girls is the key to make sure that all of our scholars do not end up being the victim of the child marriage during this crisis, but because home visits are not possible, and most of the girls do not have the technical infrastructure for “virtual home visits”, there is not much we can do at the moment. We have not given up though. Our mentors have been reaching out to as many girls as we can through phone calls, Skype, Viber, Facebook Messenger and any other way we can to make sure that the girls know that we are still here for them. We have even continued to have our GLOW Club meetings even though only a few girls are able to attend due to the lack of personal computers and Internet access.
So far, we have been extremely fortunate to not hear of any of the girls we work with fall victim to child marriage, we fear it is just a matter of time. We cannot lose hope though. We are working with our team and potential donors to see if we can help to bridge the digital divide in the communities we work in, so that the girls will continue to feel connected despite being physically distant. We will do everything in our power to ensure that an increase in child marriage is not another side effect of the already devastating COVID-19 pandemic.