I can still remember the stunned look on my best friend’s face. 

My family was living in rural India and I had been complaining about going back to boarding school. “How can you say that?” she asked in disbelief. “I would love to go to your school.” She couldn’t, of course. My friend came from a poor family in a remote Indian village. My school — though just a four-hour drive — was a universe away.

As a girl, a world of choices lay spread before me. My earliest memories are of my parents and teachers encouraging me and providing me with every opportunity to succeed. But as I grew up, I came to understand my life was the glaring exception to the global norm.

I now work with World Vision in Nepal, where 37 percent of girls are forced into wedlock before turning 18. Child brides are forced to leave school, bowing to immense pressure to bear children of their own. Miscarriage rates are high with young mothers, whose bodies are not fully developed, as are the infant and maternal death rates. Domestic violence is rampant.

Nepal has some good laws to protect girls, but their implementation and enforcement have been a challenge. Laws have little force in changing traditional practices that are discriminatory and harmful for girls. Chaupadi, where menstruating girls and women are kept in isolation — often in a tiny shed — was outlawed in 2005. However, it is still widely observed in western regions.

Unlocking girls’ potential

Knowing the limitations of laws, World Vision helps communities understand girls’ worth, laying the groundwork for change.  We help parents understand that girls have bright minds and are full of potential. And we empower girls through children’s clubs, teaching them about the laws in place to protect them. We connect these children’s clubs with village child protection committees so girls have someplace to turn for backup.

I see new hope every time I hike into the remote villages where we’re working. Like 17-year-old Parvati, who had been attending one of our children’s clubs. When Parvati learned of a 14-year-old schoolmate under pressure to marry, she stepped forward to stop the forced marriage — getting reinforcement from the village child protection committee.

Parvati knew what she wanted to do — and she did it. This act might seem like a small thing to a confident Canadian girl, accustomed to speaking her mind. But for girls and women who have been robbed of both voice and choice — it’s revolutionary.