Pic.Â Sajita Tamang was married at 14 and is now separated from her abusive husband. She has a 17-month-old baby.
Kathmandu, May 18, 2016:Â Sajita Tamang was 14 when she got married. She says love had nothing to do with it.
Now 17, Sajita recalls tearfully the pressure put on her by two women from her village to meet a man in the forest one day after school.
â€œThey asked me to hang out with them. I said, â€˜No, I have to make dinner and have work to do.â€™ But they said, â€˜Come for a while.â€™ I didnâ€™t want to but eventually went.â€
In the forest near her home in the rural, hilly district of Makwanpur in centralNepal, Sajita was left alone with the 20-year-old man, whom she found out had paid the women to bring her there.
â€œHe said, â€˜I really like you â€“ we should get married.â€™ I said I didnâ€™t want to get married as I had a dream of opening a tailoring shop. He said, â€˜I canâ€™t wait for five years. I really like you.â€™ I donâ€™t know what happened to me. I just got trapped.â€
Being alone with a man is enough to ruin a girlâ€™s reputation in the eyes of her community.
Thirteen days after they married, the verbal abuse started. â€œMy husband [came] home drunk and [said] filthy, nasty things to me,â€ she remembers. â€œHe said, â€˜Get out of my house.â€™â€
Sajitaâ€™s story is not uncommon. An estimated 10% of girls in Nepal are married before their 15th birthday (pdf) and more than 40% before they turn 18. Nepal is among the countries with the highest rates of child marriage. Nationally, the average age a girl weds is 17.
Sumina Pariyar says she fell in love when she was 15 and married seven months later.
â€œI used to carry and break stones at the quarry and he worked there too,â€ says Sumina, who lives in a one-room corrugated iron home on the outskirts of Nepalâ€™s capital, Kathmandu.
When she turned 16, the couple eloped. â€œWe were working together and fell in love and got married,â€ she says, as she comforts her eight-month-old daughter, Unika, who has a cough and diarrhoea. The familyâ€™s home is close to a busy flyover, and piles of rubbish sit beneath its arches.
â€œI was very young and didnâ€™t know what was going to happen to me, so I just got married.â€
After sheâ€™d given birth, doctors discovered Sumina, now 17, has a heart problem. This requires expensive medicine and the family has borrowed money to pay for it. They now have debts of more than 15,000 rupees (about Â£96). Her husband, Bhuwan, who is 18, can earn 200-300 rupees loading trucks with bricks. But the couple are two months behind on repayments.
Poverty, culture and a belief that a girlâ€™s life goals should be marriage and motherhood are the main drivers of early marriage among girls in Nepal.
But the government is attempting to challenge the status quo with a new strategy, announced in March. It comes at a time of renewed global action to end child marriage â€“ defined by the UN as any union before the age of 18.
Two years ago, the UN recognised child marriage as a human rights violation. Each year, early marriage strips an estimated 15 million girls under 18 of an education, while putting their health at risk, their lives in danger and robbing them of a childhood.
According to the World Health Organisation, pregnancy and complications from childbirth are the leading causes of death among 15- to 19-year-olds in poorer locations. In September, the UN general assembly promised to end child marriage by 2030 under the sustainable development goals, the blueprint for the worldâ€™s development over the next 15 years.
Rates of child marriage in Nepal have been falling, but change is slow. The transition to democracy has enabled activists to lobby for action, however, and the Girl Summit, held in the UK in 2014, proved pivotal. At the summit, the Nepalese government committed toend child marriage by 2020.
Last year, the government raised the legal age for marriage to 20 and abolished the clause that allowed girls to marry younger if their parents consented. But in its national strategy, drafted with the support of the UN childrenâ€™s agency, Unicef, and Girls Not Brides Nepal, the government will take aim at the root causes: ensuring girls have access to quality education â€“ including sex education, and skills training for girls who are married and out of school â€“ increasing their economic opportunities.
It has the backing of the president and prime minister, and, crucially, the finance ministry, where officials were convinced by the argument that ending child marriage could increase gross domestic product by more than 3%.
How the strategy will be implemented is still to be fleshed out. But when the next fiscal year begins in July, district officials across the country will be expected to start finding ways to raise awareness among parents and communities of the legal, social and physical costs of child marriage, and to collect data on how often it occurs in their areas. A committee, which will include government officials, the national human rights commission and civil society groups, will be established to oversee progress.
Kiran Rupakhetee, undersecretary in Nepalâ€™s ministry of women, children and social welfare, whose mother and father married at the age of 10 and 12 respectively, says: â€œChild marriage is just a symptom of other things. We have to heed all the other problems.
â€œItâ€™s an issue of poverty, injustice, child labour, human trafficking, itâ€™s an issue of gender-based violence â€“ so many issues that we have to deal with simultaneously. Whatâ€™s very important is the empowerment of women. If a mother is empowered, the girl is empowered.
â€œThe problem is nobody needs to get their marriage registered unless they need a certificate or documentation if they need a passport â€¦ otherwise society witness [to marriage] is enough. Thatâ€™s where society is stronger than the law.â€
Rupakhetee acknowledges that funding will be a make or break issue. Unicef and the UN population fund, UNFPA, have launched a campaign to accelerate actionon child marriage in 12 countries, including Nepal, with Â£56m from the Netherlands and Canada and Â£25m from the UK over five years.
In Makwanpur, Sajita left her husband as he continued abusing her. By then they had a son, Dabil, born when she was 15. She is back living with her parents and taking a tailoring course set up by the Child Welfare Society. The organisation has set up centres to offer vocational training for girls, as well as advice on family planning. Her dream is still to open a shop.
In Kathmandu, Sumina says she wonâ€™t allow her daughter to marry young.
â€œI will be very strict. I wonâ€™t let her go out too much or meet her friends too much â€¦ In Nepal children are just left alone at an early age and free to do what they like. Itâ€™s only at school she can be better.â€