"We married off our daughter when she was 12. She's been staying with us for the past five years, but now that she's 17 we will send her to her husband's home," confesses a mother who asked not to be identified. She is aware that child marriage and the dowry system are illegal in Nepal, but says such arrangements between families is common in Mahottari district, 300km east of the capital, where a high number of child marriages still take place.
Despite a ban on the practice, over 34 per cent of new marriages in Nepal involve brides under 15 years of age, according to the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare. In some districts in eastern Tarai, like Rupandehi, Dhanusha and Mahottari, more than 50 per cent of marriages involve girls under the age of 12.
"We recently heard that a five-year-old girl was married," says Helen Sherpa of World Education, which has been working on educational projects to combat child labour in Nepal.
Thousands of Nepali girls drop out of schools every year to get married, missing out on their education. While many girls are pulled out of school before marriage, a large number are never sent to school in the first place. Out of the 240,000 Nepali children who don't attend schools, most are girls. Educated, older daughters are big liabilities for parents when it comes to dowry.
"The younger the bride, the cheaper the dowry," explains Sherpa. Many impoverished families in the Tarai often have no choice but to pay a higher dowry to marry off their older daughters. Prices range from $200 to $20,000, depending on the age of the bride, and can be prohibitively expensive if she is a qualified teacher, engineer or doctor.
Although the number of child marriages has plateaued in the past decade, and more parents are sending their daughters to their husbands' homes only when they are 16, there is still no guarantee that the girls can continue their education after marriage. And parents are often unaware of the impact that trying to save money spent on school fees and dowry can have on the future of their daughters.
"Girls hardly return to school after marriage, and even if they do, their performance is very poor. Early marriage not only affects their education, but also their health, self-confidence, and future prospects," says Sumon Tuladhar, an education specialist at UNICEF.
According to the UN, Nepal has achieved gender parity of about 0.99 per cent in primary education enrolment, but even government officials are sceptical about the number.
"Gender parity in education is only limited to enrolment, not retention, continuance and performance," explains Dibya Dawadi, deputy director of the Department of Education. She admits the state needs to do more about getting girls back into the classroom, but it should also work on ways to eliminate discrepancies in the quality of their education.
Nepal's literacy rate for 6 to 15 year olds is 60.9 per cent, of which 72 per cent are boys, and only 51 per cent are girls. The literacy rate declines as children get older and the sex discrepancy widens. Among those aged 15 and above literacy is at 56.5 per cent, with around 71.6 per cent being young men, but only 44.5 per cent being young women, according to the Central Bureau for Statistics.
These differences can be partly explained by the fact that public school fees are more affordable at the primary level, whereas higher grades are often beyond the reach of parents. However, it's the patriarchal mindset which is really keeping girls out of school. In a culture where girls are still seen as the responsibility of their future husbands, investing in their education is the last priority for families.
"Child marriage changes the children's life options, especially their educational investment by parents," says Sherpa. "As soon as girls become someone else's 'property', the parents show little willingness to invest in their education. This is total abuse of their rights."
Child rights experts agree that the only way to stop early marriage is to prosecute guilty families. Although putting a mother in jail is not helpful when she has children at home, but Sherpa believes the crime will not go away unless the state punishes parents and sets an example for other families.
Karnali's daughters, ALOK TUMBAHANGPHEY in MUGU
Unless child marriage goes, education for the girl child will remain taboo