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Children Having Children: No School for Young Brides in Nepal

Girls from Newar community wearing traditional wedding dresses take part in Bael Bibaha, a practice where a girl is wed to a bael fruit, representing one of the gods, before her marriage. Image by  Nabin Baral. Copyright Demotix (3/12/2011)

Girls from Newar community wearing traditional wedding dresses take part in Bael Bibaha, a practice where a girl is wed to a bael fruit. Its not child marriage, but a traditional ritual which symbolises that once they are married (as adults), they will never become widows because they have been married to a symbol of god (the fruit) as children. Copyright Demotix (3/12/2011)

Child- parents are a harsh reality in South Asia where child marriage remains rampant despite efforts by governments and civil society to combat it. In this environment, it is particularly girls who suffer being trapped in a cycle of poverty through a sudden end to their education, trapping the next generation of children they have, in a similar fate.

Last year, 4,000 brides in Nepal were younger than 15-years-old, despite the fact that the legal age for marriage for both girls and boys is 18 with parental consent and 20 without consent.

Mainly affecting the most historically marginalized class, the dalits, (also known as ‘the untouchables’ for their position in the dying Hindu caste system), child marriage is often conducted in secret; part-ritual and part economic necessity, in the southern lowland belt of the country known as the Terai. In some of eastern Terai's districts data from 2012 shows that more than half of marriages involve girls under the age of 12.

A childhood lost 

Once married, child brides must immediately grapple with adult responsibilities imposed on them by their communities. Procreation — despite the fact they are not physically or emotionally ready — is a key expectation.

According to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), when a young under-age bride gets pregnant, her risks of dying during childbirth are five times higher rate than a girl in her twenties.

After mothering children, it is highly unlikely that she will have the chance to resume her education, leaving her at the mercy of illiteracy, physical and emotional abuse, and poverty.

According to a 2014 report by the Global Partnership for Education, in Nepal the female literacy rate is only 57%, compared to 75% for men, largely due to a high dropout rate at schools in the country. Moreover, research indicates that girls who marry before their 15th birthday have three or more children compared to women aged between 20 and 24.

One of the main reasons girls are married young is related to their dowry, or the price that they are required to pay to the groom’s family.

As a girl gets older and more educated, her dowry price increases. Indeed, with prices ranging from US$200 to $20,000, depending on the age of the bride and her qualifications, poor parents are dis-incentivised from sending their daughters to school. Her in-laws, themselves illiterate, will at any rate force her to focus on household chores. This explains why some experts have argued that the best way to combat the practice would be by prosecuting families, but law might be difficult to enforce in areas where the state's reach is limited.

Escaping is hard. But some, like the kidnapped 13-year old dalit child who was both courageous and lucky, are able to return to school.

Boys also suffer. Shashank Bengali, the Los Angeles Times’ South Asia correspondent, explains that child marriage is a popular way of controlling the sexuality of boys and getting rid of them in large families.

By the age of 13, many cross the border into India to find work as migrant laborers, leaving their wives and children at home to fend for themselves.

Breaking a cycle

With the effects of the practice well-documented, many question an apparent lack of progress in combating this practice:

The Nepali government and civic campaigners have attempted to tackle the dowry system:

These efforts are stymied by other realities such as the fact that schools are overloaded with children, not to mention often very far from villages, making the option of going to school difficult.

But there is hope.

Since 2009, schools through grade ten have been made free for girls. This has given rise to unexpected stories such as girls gaining empowerment through playing football or by actually being the initiators of their own marriages.

Some observe the rise of a ‘dating’ scene made possible by the penetration of hindi Bollywood culture and mobile phones:

Adolescents who work as advocates in Nepal’s western region suggest that in a patriarchal society such as Nepal, empowering girls to create change is more relevant than ever:

To stop the practice of child marriage however, will require much more effort:

In November of 2014, governments in the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) followed up on an August 2014 adoption of a Regional Action Plan to End Child Marriage with a Kathmandu Call for Action to End Child Marriage in Asia.

These plans support the specific target of ending child marriage through the use of the rule of law and legal strategies that promote accountability for ending child marriage.

It is hoped that these new steps will have a strong impact.

This last tweet leaves us with hope that no matter how old a person, a fresh outlook is always possible:

Our work building bridges across cultures, languages and perspectives is more urgent than ever before.

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