Narendra Chamar, who is now in his early 30s, laughs these days when he speaks about his marriage. But during the actual ceremony he cried so much they had to stop so he could be taken to his mother and breast fed.
He was 18 months old.
Although the tradition of marrying infants is dying out, child marriage is a serious problem in Nepal, which has the third-highest rate of child marriage in Asia. Today, most child brides are married in their teens – 37 percent of Nepal’s girls and 11 percent of boys marry before they turn 18, even though the legal age for marriage in the country is 20.
Children who marry come from a range of ethnic, religious, and caste backgrounds, but the highest prevalence of child marriage is within Nepal’s marginalized Dalit or indigenous communities. In some of the poorest areas, the rate can be as high as 80 percent, meaning that most people do not even see it as a choice so much as an inevitability.
For Narendra, the knowledge of his marriage hung over his entire childhood.
“[When I was about 10] my parents said, ‘You’re married. Your wife is two kilometres from here. She is very beautiful.’
“My parents thought if they waited they wouldn’t find a bride. As soon as my wife was born my parents went and made a verbal agreement.”
When they married, Narendra’s wife was 6 months old. Sitting outside his parents’ home, he laughed as he explained to Heather Barr, a Human Rights Watch senior researcher, how the story of his wedding, including the breast-feeding break, has become a family joke.
“It’s a tradition in this caste to get married very early,” he said. “I don’t like it but what could I do, I was already married. I was 16 when she came to live with us. I was very scared and I ran away.” Eventually he returned home to married life, because he was given no other choice.
“They said, you are married, you can’t have another wife.”
Other members of Narendra’s family also married as children, even much more recently. As he sat in the garden, sweating in the Nepali heat, two of his sisters-in-law, both former child brides, were inside, weaving baskets, the family trade.
One of them, Sushma Devi C. thinks she is about 17, and already has two daughters, ages 3 and 4. Many of the 150 former child brides interviewed by Human Rights Watch were uncertain about their ages, but Sushma knows she had two periods before she moved to live with her husband’s family. Most Nepali child brides, if they marry before puberty, move in with their husband’s families soon after the onset of menstruation.
Sushma’s marriage took place when she was 4. She remained with her parents, but was sent to live with her husband’s family soon after she began menstruating.
“That is when my father-in-law saw me and liked me,” she said. “My parents kept telling me I was married and so it stuck in my head. I don’t know how old my husband was when we got married, he was a little taller than me.”
Sushma said: “I had a happy life after marriage. We had enough food. My husband doesn’t drink and come home and beat me like some husbands do, so life is good.” Studies show that child brides are more likely to suffer domestic violence than women who marry as adults.
“Married life is good,” Sushma said, but she does not want her own daughters marrying young.
“Girls get married so young; it is ingrained into them and their childhood is gone,” she told Barr.