Five lives transformed by VSO’s Sisters for Sisters project
Keeping girls in school, preventing child marriage and bringing equality to Nepalese classrooms are just some of the impacts of VSO's Sisters for Sisters' Education project. Ben Walsh and Annabelle Mayor tell five stories of change.
“There are big obstacles for Nepalese girls in education, influenced by institutional, educational and social factors,” says Priyanka Budhathoki, VSO’s communications co-ordinator in Lalitpur, Nepal. “But the Sisters for Sisters project is trying to make sure girls come back to school to complete their education.”
Child marriage, domestic or family work and taboos surrounding menstruation are some of the factors that prevent teenage girls from obtaining the education they deserve. However, the Sisters for Sisters’ Education project, which started in 2013 and works in 50 or so schools, has made significant progress in ensuring girls stay in school.
Sisters for Sisters comprises two main initiatives: Big Sisters and Community Mobilisers. Big Sisters are older peer mentors who directly coach and support vulnerable girls (Little Sisters), while Community Mobilisers are volunteer “adult champions” who engage with local families and raise awareness of the value of girls’ education.
1. Somu BK
Fourteen-year-old Somu BK is in grade 10. Education was never a priority for Somu and she rarely came to school, instead helping out with household chores or working in the field to support her family’s income.
In 2013, when Sisters for Sisters visited her school, Somu was selected to be a Little Sister. She received school materials and her Big Sister, Laxmi Batha, visited her regularly to provide mentoring. Through her involvement with Sisters for Sisters, Somu’s parents became convinced of the importance of their daughter’s education, and Somu began to attend school more regularly.
On the International Day of the Girl Child on 3 November, Somu received an Unsung Hero Award from the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare of Nepal as recognition of her efforts to reduce the drop-out rate of girls at her school.
2. Bhawani Paswan
Facing language barriers and early marriage, Bhawani Paswan came close to dropping out of school. Thanks to the help of her Big Sister, Rubi Kumari, she was given the support she needed to continue her education.
Previously, Bhawani struggled in class as she only understood Bhojpuri, a dialect spoken in Nepal and north-east India. Rubi tutored Bhawani and helped her to learn to communicate in Nepalese and English. This gave her the confidence to speak in class.
Rubi and an adult champion also intervened when Bhawani was almost married to a man 13 years her senior, contacting the police to stop the marriage. Bhawani is happily still in school and hopes to become a teacher when she graduates.
Now they want to be a doctor, a teacher, an engineer, an actor
Priyanka Budhathoki, VSO Nepal
Budhathoki notes the changes she has seen in many girls taking part in the project. “The girls were very shy talking to their teacher and very shy taking part in different activities in the school, but they’re now participating normally,” she says. “Also, the girls never dreamed about what they were going to be in their life, but now they want to be a doctor, a teacher, an engineer, an actor; that’s a very proud moment when they say something like that.”
3. Tika BK
Tika BK was never able to complete her education; household chores and marrying at an early age (15) stopped her from going to school. It’s why she’s keen to support her daughter Gauri’s education.
Through Sisters for Sisters, Tika has seen a transformation in her daughter’s attitude towards school. Most of Gauri’s friends are already married and her attendance at school was poor before becoming a Little Sister. Now she understands the importance of an education and is much happier going to school and hopes to become a dancer.
Tika is pleased that Gauri was chosen to be part of Sisters for Sisters and won’t allow her daughter to get married at a young age, reflecting the bigger picture – more than 90% of Little Sisters are still in school, and 70% of them say that mentoring motivates them to stay in school.
4. Anisha Sharma
Many girls miss school while they’re menstruating owing to traditions in certain parts of Nepal calling for them to be isolated during this time. This can cause girls to miss classes for at least four days a month.
Little Sister Anisha Sharma breaks this tradition and still goes to school during her period, which has made her a role model among her friends. Her father, a teacher, and the rest of her family believe girls shouldn’t have to stop their studies while they’re menstruating.
However, even if girls continue to go to school while menstruating, their rights and needs in terms of privacy and hygiene have been habitually ignored in schools and this is also something Sisters for Sisters has addressed. For example, in many schools, girls’ toilets had no running water and lacked privacy for changing sanitary towels.
Thankfully, this is changing. “Sanitary pad-making training happens in schools with girls and teachers using cotton clothes, which are stored in the school for the girls to access,” says Budhathoki. “This has helped in reducing the girls’ level of absence during periods.”
5. Mala Devi Shah
Budhathoki feels Community Mobilisers – volunteer adult champions – are the main heroes of the Sisters for Sisters’ Education project. “They convince parents, who convince the teacher, who convince the community to come together and promote girls’ education.”
‘Auntie’ Mala Devi Shah is a Community Mobiliser who works to help Big Sisters guide and mentor Little Sisters, as well as promoting the importance of girls’ education to families in her community.
Married at the age of 15, Mala now persuades parents not to get their daughters married early. According to her community’s traditions, married women are not allowed out of their homes, and, before she became an Auntie, Mala was cut off from contact with her own family members.
However, with training and guidance from Sisters for Sisters and support from fellow Community Mobilisers, Mala has become an active campaigner, encouraging girls to go to school.
You can read more about VSO's Sisters for Sisters' Education project here.