When she was 15, Rachana Sunar almost became another statistic in the staggering numbers that reflect child marriage.
While she successfully convinced her parents to call off the marriage and let her stay in school, many girls in regions all around the world– from Africa to the Middle East to the Indian subcontinent such as in Sunar’s home country of Nepal– are not so lucky. Many of them become pregnant before their bodies are ready, have their education interrupted, become lost in a cycle of poverty, and are abused by their husbands.
This is the story, told through an email interview with HS Insider, of one woman’s courage to transform the painful experiences of her childhood and adolescence into the willpower to fight to end child marriage in her home country, changing minds and children’s lives one at a time.
Sunar was born in Surkhet, a small rural village in midwestern Nepal, a place where patriarchal traditions are strongly ingrained– having a daughter is considered “bad news.” Thus, when Sunar was born, her relatives were disappointed in her mother for not bearing a son; she received less care and love postpartum because of the gender bias.
“That was the beginning. . .of my life, [which started] with dark[ness], just because I am a girl,” Sunar said.
For her, her happiest childhood memories were made with her friends.
“I vividly remember my laughter. . . while playing on the mud and jumping on the dirty water,” she recalled. Her intense love for the company of her friends, however, revealed a darker side of her childhood.
After Sunar, her mother had five more daughters before she had a son, and because her mother bore no sons for years, the family treated her with disrespect. While her earliest childhood passed by relatively peacefully, by the time Sunar was 6 or 7, she knew her father to be a violent alcoholic who abused his wife because she gave him no sons, fostering a violent environment at home that Sunar so often escaped in the company of her friends.
“I am [still] afraid of [the] dark night,” she says. “[I]t reminds me of many nights that I have kept myself hidden outside of the house.”
Encouragement came in the form of her schoolteachers.
“My school teacher told me that I was a very special child with [an] intelligent mind, [a] hard-working nature, creativity[,] and discipline,” Sunar remembers. As teachers inspired her when she was a child, she would dream of continuing her education and using her knowledge to do something bigger than herself, so that she could show her parents that girls had just as much potential and capability as boys did.
“Being a girl is not my fault,” she states. “I wanted to prove that girls are [as] valuable as [boys].”
Thus, she was understandably devastated when her parents decided to marry her off when she was 15.
“For the first time I felt that girls are just born to be married and give birth to babies,” she recalls with clear indignation. “[W]hy [didn’t] my family see the. . .possibilit[ies] I [had] for my bright future[?]” she wondered. She felt that her family didn’t respect her wishes at all, just because of her gender.
“I have cried for being less fortunate than boys in the society,” she remembers.
As detailed in a CBSN documentary called “Nepal | The Lost Girls,” she pleaded with her parents and got a scholarship and successfully got out of the marriage, but this was far from her last time tackling with the issue.
UNICEF defines child marriage as any formal marriage or informal union between two people in which one or both parties are under age 18. The international nonprofit calls child marriage a “violation of human rights” that is “all too common.” Statistics show that worldwide there are 700 million women alive today were married before age 18, and one in three of those were married before age 15.
Girls who get married often end their schooling, experience pregnancy complications, and become victims of domestic violence. The harm does not stop there: it extends to the children they have, as infants born to underage mothers are more likely to be stillborn or die within their first month of life.
There are many reasons this practice continues despite the harm it causes. Among them are poverty, large families, unequal access to education, cultural traditions, and the fact that in many conservative societies, it is unacceptable to be in any kind of relationship with someone of the opposite gender before marriage and that familial honor is tied to the perceived honor of its women. In wartime, child marriage rates also spike because parents see marriage as the only protection for their daughters from rape and militants amidst infrastructural and societal damage and displacement.
Although Sunar escaped her own child marriage, her firsthand experiences with gender bias and violence drove her into activism.
“[A]s a first daughter [I] could understand the pain of my mom,” Sunar reflects. “[A]s a big sister [I] could understand the value of my younger sisters,” and felt from her early childhood on the deep unfairness of Nepal’s patriarchal culture. Overall, she feels that “[her] childhood memories made [her] the person [she is] today.”
“[The] pain [of my childhood] turned [into] my power,” she insists, with a note of defiance against the oppressive system. It “empowered me to give my voice to other girls. . .who were afraid of saying no [to child marriage],” she says of her beginnings with activism.
She is angry and heartbroken when she sees her friends and even younger girls being forced into marriage and seeing their husbands treating them violently and their children becoming part of the same cycle of poverty and violence that trapped their child mothers.
“It was not acceptable for me,” she asserts, which galvanized her into action.
Her activism was going door-to-door in her village, trying to convince families that any appeal child marriage may have in the short run was no match for its long-term harm. She also would stop weddings by calling the police, sometimes even on wedding day. By thwarting weddings and changing minds, she has stopped over 50 weddings and increased awareness of the pernicious effects of child marriage among Nepalis, including by educating over a thousand children on avoiding child marriage.
She started a NGO called Sambad, which translates to “dialogue,” with the support of the Stromme Foundation and Kirdarc Nepal. There, she worked as a social mobilizer discussing various issues with the wider community. Although the original Sambad program ended after a year, Sunar and others who worked at Sambad continued the program, which works to empower children and transform society.
Sunar also runs a Saturday school-children’s center facility for 59 children called Baalbagaicha Gayankunj. When she hears the innocent laughter of the children at the facility, she feels more compelled than ever to help provide them with peace and love, and to educate them into better people. She hopes to open a school for needy children and girls at high risk of being married too early, giving them free education up to high school and providing counselling on the harm of child marriage.
“[S]chool will empower [the children] to. . .be independent,” Sunar says. She absolutely believes that “empowered girls. . .will [become the] future leader[s] of the nation.”
When the Prime Minister of Nepal visited an area close to her home village, she presented him with a framed letter on the topic of ending child marriage and asked him to support her and the other activists working on the issue, which he agreed to. In the video of that encounter (part of the CBSN documentary), she was visibly excited at not just having met the prime minister but also getting an important endorsement for the issue closest to her heart.
Her activism has not been smooth and uncontroversial.
“It is complicate[d] to convince. . .people to break the practice[s]. . .they [are] used to,” she explains, especially when the practices they are used to are deeply ingrained into cultural and social norms.
While some in her village appreciate the work she is doing on behalf of children, some people call her their “pain.” During the filming of the CBSN documentary, the night after she stopped a wedding by reporting it to the police, a mob confronted her at her home. She was fortunately unharmed.
Yet, despite the danger she faces, she is full of hope and optimism about the positive effects her work will have in the long-term. Her aim is to eradicate child marriage in Nepal by 2030. For her, the strength to keep going in her activism stems from seeing girls start getting more equal opportunities.
“When more than 100 girls in my community called me a big sister and when they thanked me for my guidelines[, I] feel proud of being their big [sister] who always takes care of [the] younger sisters,” she asserts.