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Story from the Front Lines: Learning to Speak Up

Watch Sita Devi Shah's story in this ten-minute video.

Named after the heroine of the great Hindu epic, the Ramayana, Sita Devi Shah lives near Janakpur in southern Nepal, the Hindu pilgrimage center where her namesake was born. But, until recently, Sita lived anything but a public life. Like so many Nepali women, she married young, at age 16, and had three children in quick succession. Her home was her world. On those rare occasions when she left her family compound, she was hidden behind a veil and was known only as “the shopkeeper woman,” a reference to her husband’s small shop that barely supported their growing family.

Everything changed for Sita when the EngenderHealth-led ACQUIRE Project — funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) — introduced a reproductive health initiative for married adolescent couples in her district. Against her husband’s wishes, but with the blessing of her mother-in-law, Sita sought training to become one of the project’s peer educators.

Sita immersed herself in the project and in the health issues affecting young Nepali couples, such as misperceptions of and a lack of knowledge about HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. She learned of the benefits of planning pregnancies and about how to speak openly and sensitively with her peers about family planning. Armed with this new information, Sita quite literally took to the streets. She knocked on doors, held information sessions in her own home, and advertised with posters—mobilizing the community to support young couples in seeking reproductive health services.

Sita and her husband use family planning, and when counseling young couples, she cites her own example to inspire others. She has become a trusted and loyal confidante and advocate for young couples in the community. When several local young women were refused reproductive health care due to their low caste, she stood up for them at a public meeting and, ultimately, changed the behaviors of local health care providers. After learning that the legal age of marriage in Nepal is 18 for girls and 20 for boys—and that this law is rarely enforced by officials—Sita intervened when she heard that a neighbor planned to marry off his 13-year-old daughter. Convincing the parents to postpone the marriage, Sita worked with them to try to find the resources to send the daughter to school. Confident that education is the answer, Sita pressed for the right of all girls to go to school. What’s more, at a district-wide conference on child marriage, she worked with others to develop a strategy for enforcing the minimum age of marriage law. And data show that the strategy is working: Girls’ age at marriage has increased from 14 to 16 in the district.

Not surprisingly, Sita, now unveiled, is no longer referred to as “the shopkeeper woman,” but as “Sita Didi,” a term of respect that she holds dear as she strives to live up to the legacy of her namesake.

This project was implemented in partnership with CARE-Nepal.