07/26/2013 04:34 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2013

Nepal: Pen and Poltergeist

Haunted by girls who have been silenced by poverty, early marriage and pregnancy, Sangita Thapa wields her own power of expression to channel their yearnings.

By Sangita Thapa

As I sit here to write, I find myself lucky enough to have access to technology, just a click away from having the world read my mind, allowing my thoughts to catch like forest fire; infecting, engulfing and growing wild.

Is it necessary to feel this intensity of gratitude for writing? It is -- especially in a war-trodden and poverty-ridden country like Nepal. A pang of strange guilt and remorse grips my heart as I think of those thousands of innocent girls who are denied basic human rights: their right to education, their essential right to speak, to be heard, to lead an independent life.

In Nepal and elsewhere, women have taken the lead in all possible fields, yet it's ironic that the greatest challenge we face today is girls' access to education. Girls face severe challenges. Going to school is one of them. Poverty has rendered thousands of children -- and especially girls -- physically and mentally malnourished and intellectually disabled. It is much easier for impoverished parents to employ their young children to generate income than send them to school. This cycle has reinforced yet more poverty. Marrying daughters off when they are young cuts parents' financial burden in half and is preferable to bearing the costs of raising a daughter and supplying her dowry.

In rural and suburban parts of Nepal, girls often marry young. They bear children at a tender age and die (what I call a properly planned, socially acceptable murder). If they manage to survive their first pregnancy, these girls are expected to give birth until they are worn out. According to the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, over 34 percent of new marriages in Nepal involve brides who are under 15 years of age. In some rural Tarai districts of Dhanusha, Mahottari and Rupandehi, more than 50 percent of marriages involve girls under 12.

Social biases and discrimination are pervasive especially in rural parts of Nepal, where boys are preferred as the sole bearers of a family's lineage and the main earners. From religious myths to everyday practices, everything fosters cultural bias against daughters. Girls are taught to be submissive, vulnerable and obedient, while sons are taught to be dominant, strong and intelligent. Mainstream development plans, legal frameworks and strategic policies are filled with gender stereotypes. Lack of women's real and meaningful participation at the decision making and leadership levels is one of the greatest woes of Nepal. The few women who take their seat at the leadership level are but a sheer representation made ultimately to look like participation.

Change doesn't come in isolation. Many things must come together to elevate the condition of women and girls. Making education free up to the high school level would increase the girl child's enrollment; however, it won't guarantee her liberation from the discrimination and bias that prevails in society. It is imperative that women researchers, politicians, educationists, lawmakers, and leaders be given a chance to bring change. Incentivizing girls' education as well as providing vocational training to the parents and girls themselves might work wonders. Providing teachers' training is equally essential, while raising awareness of the importance of educating the girl child would be a pragmatic move.

I feel these cultural biases in the air I breathe, in the alleys I walk. I hear it in my soul, throbbing, grumbling, and roaring. It is as if hundreds of poltergeists within me are awoken after years of sleep to remind me that I have responsibilities, obligations. These dead poltergeists must rise, must groan in each educated individual's soul, for we must not remain silent. This deafening silence is an injustice to those millions of girls who don't and perhaps will never enjoy the precious right to education and emancipation. It's a battle for emancipation that each one of us must fight in solidarity with those who can't fight for themselves.

So, I write. I speak the stories of daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers -- the nurturers of humanity. If I don't, my soul will never be at peace.