March 2012: As a child, Laxmi Thing yearned to follow her two elder sisters to school in their village in southern Nepal, but she was denied an education, and at 15, she was still illiterate and already married.
Her husband was uneducated and poor, and life became a struggle.
“The produce we farmed was not enough to survive. Our hut was small, and we did not have good bedding material. We had to fetch water in earthen pots and make ends meet by toiling for others,” she said from Makwanpur district, southwest of Kathmandu.
Ten million girls under the age of 18 marry each year, often driving them into a life like Laxmi’s – of poverty, poor health and a lack of education and job opportunities.
It is a common practice in many cultures and traditions, driven by gender inequality, poverty and negative traditional or religious norms. The problem is particularly acute in South Asia, the region with the highest rate of early and forced marriages at 46 percent.
For the young brides, the consequences are severe.
Girls who marry early have their first children at a younger age, which can lead to birth complications – one of the leading causes of death for girls between 15 and 18. Infant deaths are also twice as likely among babies born to teenage moms.
Furthermore, as soon as they wed, their education is deemed unnecessary, making it harder for them to find work and build a secure household.
On the cusp of International Women’s Day on March 8, we tell the stories of two women who faced obstacles as young brides and mothers. Laxmi, when connected to the right opportunities, built an inspiring future for herself and her community. Pusacha Arpikoo, of Thailand, has just started on the same journey.
Thailand: A second chance for a young mothers
Pusacha Arpikoo was 14 when she met a boy at a festival in northern Thailand and fell in love. Then two years later, there came a time when she lost her appetite and felt queasy. Not until her second trimester, did she understand what was happening.
“I didn’t even know that I had missed my period until one day when I felt I was too easily fatigued, so I decided to see a doctor and found out that I was pregnant,” said Pusacha, learning that she was four months along in the pregnancy. “I told my boyfriend and then our parents. A week later, we got married and dropped out of school.
At age 17, she gave birth last November to a baby boy. She is excited about being a mother, but yearns for her old life
“I love my son very much, as well as my school. I miss my old days at school, and I admit that I really want to continue my education. I think that if I finish a higher level of education, I can get a good job and good money, so I can support my son.”
Born to Burmese labour migrants, Pusacha had once dreamed of finishing college and becoming a nurse.
“I have no one to blame but myself. We have to accept our mistakes. Now, I just want my baby to be a good person and to have a good education,” she said.
Plan’s project manager Metaporn Feungtanuch says Plan generally encourages young mothers to return to the formal education system.
“If these girls are still young, they can go back to learn, but they have to be dedicate and take responsibility for themselves. Otherwise, we can help develop their vocational skills,” she said.
Pusacha has registered in Plan’s volunteer mothers programme in Fang district of northern Chiang Mai province to learn how best to care for her baby and support his development.
“When my baby cries, I play with him and see why he is upset. When I am feeling moody, I take time away from my baby until I feel better. I also talk with him while breastfeeding to make develop his brain,” she said. “I have had the chance to meet many new people, and we exchanged ideas on how to develop children’s behaviour.”
Nepal: Managing the home and community
In 1998, Laxmi was chosen as the chairperson of a woman’s group supported by Plan International in Makwanpur.
With the group members, she started a monthly savings scheme, collecting 5 rupees (7 US cents) a month – a sum that Laxmi fought to scrape together – from each woman so that they could give small loans within their group.
She borrowed 800 rupees (US$10.50) to buy two goats that she later sold for 6,000 rupees (US$80). Under Plan’s tutelage, she also learned to improve her farming income by planting ginger, in addition to maize and millet.
Managing to save money, Laxmi’s family upgraded to a nicer home.
She committed herself more to community development and the women’s group, but each time she signed a document, still unable to write, she had to put her thumbprint. When Plan invited her to a leadership development training programme, her illiteracy was put in a spotlight before a group of strangers.
“I did not feel bad putting down my thumbprint in the village, but during this programme conducted in the city, I was ashamed and embarrassed,” she said.
So she asked Plan to organize an adult literacy class in her community, and after learning to read, she continued her studies. She is now in the 8th grade.
She now also helps to resolve family disputes and leads a women’s network to fight alcoholism, gambling and domestic. Many survivors of domestic violence consult her to seek justice and punish the perpetrators.
Today the women’s cooperative now handles 32.2 million rupees (US$390,000) in transactions and serves about 1,600 women in her community.
“Until and unless women have economic rights or are empowered economically, they cannot bring change in their lives, so I always lobby for them. I encourage them to join a group and start some income-generating activities through the group,” she said.
Although Laxmi still leads the way for change, she maintains her responsibilities at home, getting up at 3 in the morning, finishing her housework by 7, and then spending the rest of her days in meetings and activities.
“It is tough to balance my family life and social life, but I am committed to make our community a model so that others can learn from us. I don’t want women to face same plight that I did in the past.”
Plan has been fighting poverty for 75 years, and now works in 50 countries.
To learn more, visit the following web sites:
- Plan International, www.plan-international.org
- Plan’s Take the Vow campaign to end early and forced marriage, http://www.plan-uk.org/what-we-do/campaigns/because-i-am-a-girl/get-involved/take-the-vow
- Breaking Vows: Early and forced marriage and girls’ education, http://www.plan-uk.org/resources/documents/Breaking-Vows-Early-and-Forced-Marriage-and-Girls-Education/
- Behind the Screen: An inside look at gender inequality in Asia, http://plan-international.org/girls/resources/behind-the-screen.php
- Paying the Price: The economic cost of failing to educate girls, http://plan-international.org/girls/resources/paying-the-price.php
- International Women’s Day, http://www.internationalwomensday.com