Photos: Nissi Thapa
THREE GENERATIONS: Pampha (right) with her grandson, Rhythm. She had married at the age 12, and had eight children. One of them is Kamal (below, at left) who himself got married when he was 16 to Rita. After suffering a miscarriage first time, Rita gave birth to their son, Rhythm.
Kamal BK fell in love with 18-year-old Rita and eloped. Little over a year later, the teenager suffered a miscarriage after being rushed to hospital in Dharan. Today, the couple have become activists to convince others like them not to marry young.
Last week, a video went viral on Facebook showing a girl in Rautahat being mercilessly beaten by male family members and for having an affair with a lower-caste boy. The teenage girl did have a relationship with the boy, but only because her parents had promised her in marriage to another family soon as she was born, a practice still prevalent in the Tarai, known as gauna.
Salma was 14 when she got married with a boy from her village in Sunsari. Two years later, her husband left her for another girl. Salma doesn't know how to get help and spends her days with her young daughter in her parent's home.
These cases offer examples of why Nepal has the third highest rate of child marriage in Asia: 48.5% of girls here get married before the age of 18, and, according to a Human Rights Watch report, 11% of boys. Despite a doubling of female literacy in the past 20 years, traditional mores and cultural practices persist in Nepal’s patriarchal society.
“Child marriage perpetuates poverty, increases school dropout and leads to early pregnancy that could risk both mother and child,” says Rabindra Gautam of World Vision Nepal, which takes a multi-dimensional focus to enhancing the capabilities of girls and the community.
Ending child marriage can also help increase family income. A United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report noted that individuals earn 10% more for every additional year they stay in school. When couples marry young they are unable to continue studying, which leads to limited livelihood options and affects their productivity.
“Education is the best way to reduce child marriage: it is important to find ways to keep girls in school. Nepal has high school enrolment, but also a high dropout rate among girls, who are 10 times more likely to get married and miss out on education and a career,” explains Kristine Blokhus of UNFPA.
Health impact is the other reason to end the practice. Young girls are more likely to suffer from uterine prolapse and obstetric fistula because of their under-developed reproductive organs. Girls who marry early also face increased domestic violence and psychological trauma.
“The primary causes for both the conditions are early marriage and early child bearing, both common in Nepal. Most girls do not know how to get help and are ostracised, forcing them to suffer throughout their life,” says Latika Maskey Pradhan at UNFPA.
Nepal outlawed child marriage in 1963 prohibiting it before the age of 20 for both girls and boys. But additional legislation is still needed to make the ban workable, including penalties for marrying too young. The government has set a target of ending underage marriage by 2030, and has drafted guiding principles to enforce the minimum age of marriage. However, activists say they need to lobby for a separate, stronger law if the changes do not address every aspect of child marriage.
“Although the National Code criminalises child marriage, there is no strong provision of punishment so that such practices will be discouraged from a legal point of view,” says Gautam. “It is not well defined and is very feeble in terms of severity of the crime. The law is not effective and the government needs to strongly address it.”
Besides stronger laws, Blokhus says greater gender equality and equal opportunities for girls will help curb child marriage.
“It will take time to change traditions and attitudes but we need to show girls and their parents and communities that they can be something important and valuable in society, and provide them with role model and choices in life,” she added.
World Vision Nepal will be launching a five-year campaign against child marriage this month in collaboration with the government. Figures show that child marriage is not just a rural problem: 34% of marriages in cities are of couples below 18. Teenagers begin relationships on Facebook and if their parents disapprove, they elope. There is also a sharp rise in child marriage in earthquake-affected areas.
The trend has made sex education and adolescent-friendly services essential, which is why the Ministry of Education is working with UNFPA to integrate information on sexuality into school textbooks.
“It is important to consider both forced and voluntary child marriage when combating it, and employ a multi-sectoral approach where adolescents, the community, private organisations and the government are all involved,” says Lorina Sthapit of Oxfam. “Laws against child marriage are in place, but periodic review and implementation are needed.”
Child groom fights child marriage
It has been six years since Kamal BK decided to get married when he was just 16. He had fallen in love with Rita who was 18. His parents, who had also married when they were children, did not object much. Rita soon got pregnant and due to complications had to be rushed to Dharan, 200km away from their village in Udaypur, where she suffered a miscarriage.
“I had no idea about child marriage then, but now I know it gives a lot of problems: my wife was constantly sick and I had a hard time managing the household. I learnt the hard way,” Kamal told us. Today, the young farmer has become a social mobiliser against child marriage, volunteering to spread awareness in his community.
He says: “I didn’t know about the consequences of child marriage. If I had, I wouldn’t have married early. Now I have a chance to warn others against under-age marriage. I hope they will listen.”
There are few cases of forced child marriage in his village today, but if he fails to convince young couples not to get married he reports the case to the authorities.
Rita didn’t face complications in her second pregnancy, and the couple is now learning to take care of their one-year-old son together.
Cross-border child marriage
Pics: Gopal Gartaula
Many indigenous and Muslim families in Morang cross border and take their minor daughters to India to get married because of the fear of getting caught in Nepal.
Julikumari Sah of Ratuwamai of Morang is just 17 and could not get married in Nepal because she was below the legal minimum age of marriage in Nepal which is 20. But her parents were trying to get her married off.
Local parents, priests and even wedding band members of Ratuwamai had just attended a two-day meeting last December to raise awareness against child marriage where they had learnt that child marriage was illegal and anyone found guilty could be jailed for up to three years and fined up to Rs 10,000.
So, when Soshit Das (pictured below) and Semanti Kumari Ganagai (pictured right) of Child Network in Ratuwamai heard that Julikumari’s parents were getting her married, they reported them to the Mahadev Police Station. Sub Inspector Kamal Tolangi went over to the would-be bride's father Yamuna Prasad and stopped the marriage.
However, two days later the father took Julikumari across the open India-Nepal border to Bihar and performed the wedding there with a dowry of INR 500,000. It was too late by the time Tolangi found out about it. Nepal Police says there has been a steep rise in indigenous and Muslim families in Morang taking their minor daughters to India to get married because of the fear of getting caught in Nepal.
"We stop it here, but parents take them to India to get married, it is getting harder to stop child marriages," said Tolangi who says he was even threatened with a transfer by powerful locals with political connections when he tried to crack down on child marriages here.
Ratuwamai municipality, which was previously Mahadev VDC is astride the Indian border and has a population of 5,462. Of the 300 or so weddings every year, 90% are child marriages, says ward chief Srikanta Baidar. In fact, former VDC chief Shankar Prasad Thakur married off all three of his daughters before they turned 16. One of his daughters-in-law was just 15 at the time of her marriage.
"I married them young, I have no worries now," Thakur admits openly.
Gopal Prasad Singh, a social mobiliser with the Women Development Committee in eastern Morang says child marriage persists because parents have to pay a higher dowry as their daughters get older. So, it is easier to perform the wedding across the border.
Marriage without dowry is a rare occurrence here, admitted Baidar. Since Bihar doesn't consider child marriage as a crime and dowry is still prevalent in the Indian province, it is impossible to protect Nepali children near the border despite the law and strict punishment.
Said Tolangi: "It is difficult to implement the law when the community is not aware about it."
Gopal Gartaula in Jhapa
Human Rights Watch on why Nepal is going slow on the Child Marriage Act
Let's talk about girls, Aleksandra Percynska
No time for school
Married in school