Justine Demmer describes how grassroots networks are best placed to tackle society’s biggest issues and shares a story from Nepal of one girl saved from the risk of exploitation.
Eleven years old: the age when girls in many cultures begin to become more independent and transition from primary to secondary school. The younger years of childhood are ending; becoming a teenager is rapidly approaching.
In parts of Nepal, however, 11 is a dangerous age to be a girl. For this is when many girls are sexually exploited for the first time by groups of men who are more concerned about exerting power and making money than the care and protection of children.
Maya is 11 and lives with her aging parents and one younger sister in Kuwapani village in Bageshwori, central Nepal. It’s an area regularly targeted by traffickers because of its remoteness and for the children, whose skin is naturally paler than those living in other parts of the country. A fairer complexion is viewed by them as more attractive.
With no land of their own, Maya’s family farm other people’s fields to grow crops and try to earn money. When she was five, Maya started to go to a local school, but her parents couldn’t afford all the things she needed like stationery and uniforms, so she was forced to leave after just one year there and instead spent her days looking after the family’s goat.
Looking back, Maya says, “I felt very bad when I saw the other children going to school; I never really got a chance.”
For some years, churches in Bageshwori Village Development Committee, where Maya and her family live, have participated in the trafficking advocacy campaign run by Viva’s partner network, CarNet Nepal. These churches have identified that a number of children in their area go missing regularly – and it’s likely they are trafficked.
Together, the churches took action and formed a Child Protection Vigilant Group to actively intervene and protect children.
Village-level groups like this have formed to monitor issues in their own community. They collect the data about vulnerable children and, where possible support them in areas of neglect, such as providing adequate clothing so that they can attend school. They also train children in good hygiene. The training has been developed in partnership with the government of Nepal.
Last year, the church volunteers in Bageshwori led a door-to-door programme campaigning against child sexual abuse and child trafficking, and sharing the risks and discussing child protection. One of the doors they knocked on belonged to Maya’s family. The volunteers went in, talked to her parents about the importance of education and safety – and learned that trafficking recruiters had already started to visit the family, taking an interest in Maya who was still unable to attend school because it was too costly.
The volunteers recommended that Maya attend the local Child Development Centre (CDC), established by CarNet Nepal to help out-of-school and vulnerable children reintegrate into the government schooling system and then stay enrolled.
After six months at a CDC, which provided Maya with catch-up learning, uniform and materials, her parents enrolled her into the local school. The network also provided Maya’s parents with income generation support to ensure she started at the local school.
CarNet Nepal’s scale and impact means they have been able to create good working relationships with government departments that individual churches and NGOs in Nepal were too small to achieve on their own.
Through this partnership, the network has also arranged citizenship and birth certificates for many of the children in the network, which are essential for school registration.
Maya received her certificates with the network’s assistance – and so did her parents, when it was discovered they had never been through the process, a common occurrence in Nepal. Her mother said she can hardly believe that in her old age she has finally got citizenship!
Maya’s parents are very thankful that their precious 11-year-old daughter has been saved from the risk of being trafficked. They will continue to send their daughter to school regularly and are hopeful about her future.
It’s fantastic to see how, through its holistic, collaborative programmes focused on child protection, education, birth registration and income generation, CarNet Nepal is bringing new hope to the lives of thousands of children and their families in the poorest regions of the country.
Justine Demmer is Viva’s Network Consultant for Asia
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This article first appeared in Life magazine issue 6.