Sanoka Harijan grew up seeing young girls getting married around her and those who got married then would drop out of school. When she reached that age, her family too forced her to get married. But, she strongly refused. “Getting married early would lose my hope to study and become an independent person.”
Sanoka, an 18-year-old from Banke, also got enough support from her mother, Lajjawoti Harijan. “My daughter always teaches me about gender-related stigma. I want a better life for her, at least better than mine. And delaying her marriage can help her get education and more opportunity in the future.”
The mother-daughter duo owe their unconventional ways to a radio programme. “I learned that early marriage is illegal and against my right,” shares Sanoka.
Dil Kumari Subedi learned her father tested positive for the coronavirus. She knew about the importance of isolating the infected person and healthy diet for them. But, her limited knowledge was not enough. “Information I got from friends or social media felt unreliable. I could not tell right from wrong,” she explains.
Subedi, 15, also learned from the radio programme the do’s and don’ts on home isolation, exercises for stable oxygen level and disinfecting home. Following the information, she took better care of her father and made sure to feed protein, high fibre food and more liquid. Her father recovered for good.
The radio programme that proved educational to them was “Life Skills with Shiksha Didi”. The programme was an initiative of Room to Read that went on-air last year’s June. The whole programme was designed for a post-pandemic scenario in which they aimed to teach the younger generation about the importance of social and health issues.
Addressing crucial concerns
Salina Tamang, Room to Read’s Senior Girls’ Education Programme Manager, has been working in the field of girl education for more than five years. But, Tamang feels that girl education has always been an issue of concern. “The government has mandated that secondary level education is compulsory for all. But, that is not enough to keep the students in school. Girl education and young girls dropping out of school are still a big concern. Many still suffer from child marriage, the reason varies from economical problems to the lack of awareness.”
To address the same issues, Tamang and the team of Room to Read started reaching out to the young girls through radio programmes. When asked why they chose radio as a medium, Tamang answers that though the medium is one-directional, radio is still the medium highest audience count in Nepal.
According to the organisation’s data, some 100+ child marriages have been reported in the 2020 lockdown. The rate of early marriage, she says, has not changed much but the reasons have. “Where earlier the reasons were family pressure and traditions. During the lockdown, the reasons shifted to girls wanting social security for themselves and family. In Nepalgunj, Banke, there were more eloping cases owing to intrafamily conflict and abuse at home.”
The radio programme, according to Tamang, continues to motivate the girls to go back to school. Tamang, who has closely observed the situations, the programmes, and their impacts, briefs that the dropout rate among the girls in their network has dropped to 5 per cent from 6 per cent of the previous year. “Early marriages and relocation of families back to villages were some of the prime reasons.”
She further explains their studies showed that at the start of May last year, 43 per cent of the households in their programme were on the verge of losing their source of income. Also, 13 per cent of young girls were at risk of losing the environment to study at home which dropped to 5 per cent in December 2020. The decreases in alarming numbers were linked to offering girls with phone mentorship and reaching out with life advice.
To assess the Covid-19 impact, the organisation had asked a series of questions ranging from the environment to study at home or a lack thereof, the loss of job or source of income, their involvement in household works, fears and impact prompted by Covid-19, the probability of them rejoining schools when they reopen, and pressure to marry.
This was largely conducted via phone conversations. The researchers also conducted focused group discussions with recorded sessions of the episodes to further discuss and analyse the situation closely as well as expand their reach.
The radio programme coupled with a close-knit group of social mobilisers has shown promising growth. “With schools closed, families facing economic instability, stress, intra-family conflict and gender-based violence increases together with illness and loss of people, the Covid-19 crisis has had an overwhelmingly negative impact on girls’ education and their long-term life outcomes. And in all this, girls are particularly vulnerable. But, the radio programme with individual remote mentoring to girls, in a group of 60-70, from our social mobilisers despite the Covid-19 restrictions and technological gaps, has been inspiring.”
“Many times the mobilisers used to initiate and take matters into their own hands. They really care for the girls and have made striding efforts to reach out to them for their smallest of problems, which has been successful in creating a special bond between them,” Tamang adds.
These sessions held after the programmes aired and the network of social mobilisers, she says, were complimentary to bridge the gap that came with the one-sided communication approach of the radio and Covid-19 restrictions and subsequent lockdowns
Taking girls forward
The team has produced just over 100 episodes in total. In June- July last year, the team aired Alumina Stories where they featured many role models to increase girls’ aspirations for their lives. Prioritising the value of education, the guests retold their real-life stories of how they turned their challenges into strengths.
Simultaneously, the team also aired “Life Skills with Shiksha Didi” from August 2020 to March 2021 that continued its pursuit to help young girls cope with the difficult situation during the pandemic. And starting June 2021, it also started Balika Shiksha Chautari to further accelerate the education and life skills to make informed decisions. The programmes aired through 12 local FM radio stations.
Like its predecessors, this year’s programme continues to focus on psychological issues, Covid-19 information dissemination, early marriage problems, coping mechanisms, dealing with the loss, safe spaces, and interpersonal communication through experience and information sharing sessions as well as using storytelling tools like drama and role-playing interactions.
According to Nistha Thapa Shrestha, the communications officer of Room to Read, all the programmes were in line with the Room to Read’s Girls Education Programme and its objective to educate young girls. “We want to provide them to study at home, be informed about the pandemic and health issues. Our aim is to emotionally support the girls and understand the dropout risks and challenges. We want the girls to discover essential skills, learn how to negotiate, communicate with confidence, and persevere through obstacles to break the mould, advocate for themselves and others as well as forge their own paths.“
In this period, through the radio programmes, Room to Read has reached more than 9,000 girls from over 70 schools. Their focus is on teenage girls from grades six to 12. Room To Read is working in 11 districts, but the radio programmes saw a particular impact on Banke and Bardia districts. The total number of girls still active in the programme is over 4,000.