Bipana Sharma: A young champion of Child rights
One of Bipana Sharma’s earliest memories is seeing girls of her age working while she was going to school. She remembers asking her father who was supposed to send them to school. To this she got a terse reply: ‘Sarkarko kaam ho’ (it’s the government’s job).
“I was just a little girl then and I thought ‘sarkar’ was a person,” says Sharma, who is now 23.
She later found out the meaning of the word. Indeed, the government must ensure all children get the opportunity to go to school. But that was not happening in Sharma’s hometown of Sunwal, Parasi. The situation was far worse in fact. Girls barely in their early teens were getting married off or worse, getting trafficked.
Sharma was a precocious child. It didn’t take her long to figure out what was going on. Children in her community had no say in their future. They were not safe and had no rights.
So Sharma decided to set things right. In 2010, at the tender age of 11, she founded Ekta Child Club Sunwal. Getting children in her community to join the club was difficult. “Most parents wouldn’t consent to the idea,” says Sharma. She visited every house in her neighborhood, convincing adults to allow their children to be part of the club.
At length the club managed to get 40 members. It was the beginning of Sharma’s journey in child rights activism.
“You need the mass if you want to be heard and make a change,” says Sharma. Survival, development, protection and participation were the four things the club wanted for all children. Sharma and her club friends were a hardy bunch, determined to address the social ills afflicting their peers. Their primary area of work was putting a stop to child marriage.
Sharma and her club friends were the gatekeepers and whistleblowers that saved many girls from early marriage. They worked closely with the local authorities to break up many weddings with underage brides.
In several cases, they intercepted the groom’s family and friends on their way to get the bride. They also rescued young girls who had been married off and reunited them with their parents. The club’s goal was to stop child marriage from happening in the first place, but it was not always possible, says Sharma. “We had to intervene and disrupt things.”
Ekta Child Club started gaining a reputation for its work. What began as a small cohort of children working for the rights of children started amassing many members. It also inspired other children to form similar clubs.
Sharma has become a role model for many youths across the country. Samir Pariyar, a fellow club member, describes Sharma as an inspirational figure and a born leader.
“We find her drive and courage inspirational,” he says. “She has a strong sense of right and wrong. She treated everyone equally.” The proudest moment of Sharma’s life, she says, was when Sunwal was declared Nepal’s first child-friendly municipality in 2015. She is pleased the club she founded also had a contribution to achieve that status for her hometown.
“Our club played a part in making Sunwal a child-friendly municipality,” Sharma says. “I wear this as a badge of honor.” In 2015, Sharma was feted with Asian Girl Human Rights Awards as well as first Glocal Teen Hero award for her contributions to child rights.
Sharma left her beloved club after she turned 18, but she still works closely with it and mentors its leaders and members. She is deeply invested on the issue of child rights. From making change at the community level, she has now moved on to the national level. These days Sharma’s mission is ensuring child-friendly local governance. She serves as a board member of National Level Child Governance Forum.
There is still a long way to go for Nepal to become a child-friendly country. While some municipal wards are making impressive progress, others lag far behind. “We will just have to try harder,” says Sharma. With her determination and belief, she will try.
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