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The fight to end child marriage

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Kathmandu, May 13, 2016: Tulasi Joshi looks much older than just 19. Fine lines are sharply visible on her pale face. However, the blue eyes add spark to her lean body. As she prepares to talk about life, she tries to hide her cracked toes under her cotton sari.

She holds her little baby on her lap and shares that she doesn’t have any dreams left in life. She feels she shouldn’t think beyond what her current life has offered and wholeheartedly accept it as her ‘destiny’.

Married at the age of 17, by 18 Tulasi had had a child and she became a widow when she was 19. She feels that her infant daughter and mother-in-law in Majhi VDC in Bajhang are her future. When asked if she would like to remarry in the future, Tulasi said she believes that it would be a grave sin on her part to even think about any man other than her deceased husband.

“My daughter is my life now and it’s my responsibility to take care of my old mother-in-law since her son is not around anymore,” she said, adding, “It’s been a year since my husband died and I’m surviving with his memories.”
It was her mother who put immense pressure on her to get married after she turned 17. Tulasi said that her mother, who was ill, wished to see her married before she died.

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There is a traditional belief in Nepal that parents will get a place in heaven if they marry off their daughters and drink the water with which they wash the daughter’s feet during the marriage ceremony. Knowingly and unknowingly, mostly in rural areas, many parent end up marrying off their daughters at tender ages.

Apart from getting married at such an early age, Tulasi’s deteriorating health after she gave birth is creating problems to an already problematic existence. “I couldn’t complete my studies because I was married off when I was quite young. The entire financial burden is on me but I can’t seem to find a job,” she says, adding that her health also poses serious challenges.

Child marriage is one of the biggest social ills prevalent in Nepal. Mainly practiced in the historically marginalized and Dalit communities, families of lower castes marry off their daughters early because of poverty and illiteracy. Child marriage has been both the cause and consequence of poverty.

Parents, who are mired in poverty, marry off their children because they don’t have enough food to feed them. Also, poor parents can’t afford to send their daughters to schools.

There are many instances when parents have found partners for their daughters at early ages just to avoid high dowry. Somehow, social security and protection of daughters are guaranteed in a patriarchal society if they are married early.

Tulasi’s views of life mirror those of hundreds of adolescents who are married off early. Being trapped in marriages at an age when they are barely starting to understand life, they simply get caught up in the whirlpool of problems that come with early marriage.

Pregnancy-related problem is another common result of child marriage. Among many health problems created by child marriage, uterine prolapse, high infant and maternal mortality rate, and malnutrition are rampant. In many cases, child marriage can bring psychological problems and give rise to unhealthy relationships.

Sanju (name changed), now 17, was married when she was just 13 years old. She couldn’t have a good relationship with her husband and both of them suffered psychologically. “I tried to commit suicide many times because I couldn’t handle the torture my husband was giving me,” she said adding that she was forced to marry because of family pressure. Sanju believes that child marriage can’t be eradicated unless parents are aware about the issue.
“Parents in my village are unaware that child marriage is a social evil. Unless we can educate parents, there is nothing we can do it improve the situation,” said Sanju.

Sumnima Tuladhar, executive coordinator of Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN), says that child marriage has one too many ramifications on the lives of both the girl and boy entering the marriage.

“Patriarchal norms and power structure of our society are the root causes of child marriage, and its consequences are huge. They are not able to continue their education when they enter into early parenthood and this directly affects the country’s economy and development process,” she says.

Can we end child marriage by 2030?

According to data from Central Bureau of Statistic (CBS), 2011, 1.1 percent of girls between the ages of 10-14, 8.8 percent of girls between the ages of 15-16, and 30 percent of girls between the ages of 17-18 are married.

Likewise, a recent survey by UNICEF suggests that one in five women aged between 15-49 are married before the age of 15 while 48 percent women aged between 20 to 49 are married before their eighteenth birthday. The same data hints that one in four married adolescents girls is either already a mother or carrying a child.

Nepal outlawed child marriage in 1963 but child marriage is still rampant in various districts mainly in Rautahat, Morang, Bajhang, Dailekh, Surkhet, Nawalparasi, Kapilbastu, Rupandehi, Kalikot, Doti, Makwanpur, Saptari, Udayapur, Banke, and Baitadi.

According to the legal provision, anyone found guilty of forcing a child to marry can be jailed for up to three years and fined Rs 10,000. The legal age for marriage is 20 for both sexes.

The government recently conducted its first ever ‘Nepal Girls Summit’ with an aim of ending child marriage by 2030. The government even vowed to end child marriage by 2030 during the 2014 Girls Summit in London.

Sushila Poudel, officer at Child Development and Protection Section at Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare (MoWCSW) stressed on the aim of the government to end child marriage in the next 14 years despite several existing challenges.

“We are committed to ending child marriage. We plan to work on changing the factors that are the causes of child marriage in the first place,” said Poudel.

She explained that the issue of poverty can be addressed with various programs, but the real challenge lies in changing the mindset of people at the local level. “Child marriage often takes place due to social and religious factors as well. And it is really challenging to change the mindset of people without conducting continuous awareness programs in grass-root level.”

Poudel even added that they plan to conduct family education, adolescent awareness, and experience sharing program to accomplish their mission.

According to the Government, Nepal holds third position in South Asia after Bangladesh and India in terms of child marriage.

Many experts working with children stress that education is the only factor that can stop child marriage in Nepal. “Nepal is a closed-society and unless girls are educated and empowered, it will be quite impossible to put an end to child marriage,” said Tuladhar.