“After being married, my only fear was that I would not be able to go back to school,” said Maya. “But, luckily, my parents supported me. I want to continue studying and become a nurse and support patients.”
While many girls Maya’s age spend their free time with friends and family, Maya has different responsibilities in her life. At 16, Maya is a mother and a wife—a scenario that is still too common in Nepal.
Maya met her husband Keshav at school.
According to his parents, the couple married out of love.
“They were friends first,” said Keshav’s father. “It would have been better if they waited, but children are going to do what they want. There is a lack of sex education in school, so girls get pregnant early and make their own decisions.”
While Maya and her husband were able to continue their studies—all while managing the responsibility of childcare—Maya says that she did not feel like she was receiving the emotional care and support that a young girl at her age needed when becoming a mother and a wife.
Through the support of Plan International, Maya is one of 22 girls in her community taking part in a local Adolescent-Friendly Space, a safe area that caters to young girls, aged 12 – 18. Out of the 22 girls, half are married, the rest unmarried. Some girls are pregnant, while others are mothers.
Plan’s Adolescent-Friendly Spaces were established soon after the April 2015 earthquake, when it became apparent that many adolescent girls were not taking part in some of the protection services offered in the community. Adolescent girls who were married, pregnant, or young mothers often felt intimidated or feared the stigma attached to some of these community services. It became clear that separate spaces were needed for adolescent girls, and that critical issues—like girls’ rights and family planning—needed to be addressed in a safe and trusting environment.
Over a five-month period, 22 girls per group met on a daily basis and were taught by a volunteer facilitator on issues ranging from adolescent sexual and reproductive health to gender-based violence. Topics like menstruation and sexually transmitted infections are normally too taboo to discuss within the home. It was often within these classes that girls openly discussed these issues for the very first time.
“At first, we felt shy to discuss our personal issues, but then we became very close,” said Maya. “I am comforted knowing that I am not the only person who has faced these challenges. There are other girls like me.”
Her husband and family have also been supportive of her extra classes. Splitting the responsibility of childcare, she takes care of the baby while Keshav attends extra classes in the early morning. When he returns, Maya goes to the Adolescent-Friendly Space. From 10 a.m. onwards, both teenagers go to school, while their mothers look after the baby.
“The Adolescent-Friendly Space has shown me that I have value and a choice in my life,” said Maya. “I now feel like I can start thinking of a future.”
Living in one of the areas hardest hit by the second earthquake in May 2015, Maya lost her home and all of their household items, including food, clothes, and roughly 15 bags of rice. For 15 days, the family of seven was forced to live in a cowshed. Eventually, her father built a temporary shelter using salvaged materials. While the family was forced to live under tarpaulins, with limited food and water, and coping with daily aftershocks, Maya was also looking after a then 6-month old baby.
Living in the mountainous Dolakha district, an area that sees freezing temperatures during the winter, the family also received winter materials, like jackets, blankets, and insulation material from Plan.
“I want to build a permanent home, but I do not want it to compromise my children’s education,” said Maya’s father-in-law. “Even if we rebuild, we will not build more than one floor. I am still fearful. The epicenter of the second earthquake was in our district, so it was so strong.”
At the end of March, Maya was one of thousands of girls to take their school leaving exams. If passed, Maya would be able to continue on with a higher education.
“Education is important to me, and my family understands that,” Maya said.
“Since I did not receive an education, I want her to have the freedom to study,” says Maya’s mother-in-law.
While education may be at the forefront of Maya’s mind, she acknowledges that pursuing her individual goals is harder when you are married and have a child at a young age. Your priorities come second, she believes.
Now that she has attended the Adolescent-Friendly Space, Maya tells younger girls in her community to focus on themselves first.
“As a girl, you already face a lot of barriers,” she said. “It is better to focus on your own goals and complete your studies.”