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.
Her sister-in-law Sapana K. thinks she thinks she was about 10 or 11 when she married into the family. Now 20, she has an 8-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter.
“Why wouldn’t a girl who has come of age get married?” ,” she said, in the same tone of resignation as her sister-in-law. “I was young but I wasn’t a child.” “I didn’t know anything about what happened between a man and a woman,” she added. “I didn’t like it when it came.”
For Sapana too, life seems good because “no-one has tortured me,” but she regrets her own lack of education and does not want the same for her daughter.
“I think 20 is a good age [for marriage],” she said. “I want her to be educated first so she understands more.”
Human Rights Watch spoke with 104 married children and young adults who married as children. Some had married only weeks earlier, though child marriage has been illegal in Nepal since 1963.
Poverty, child labor, social pressures, and dowry practices are among the factors driving child marriage in Nepal, Barr found. Some girls spoke about financial worries and wanting to help their families – when they move in with their husband’s family, it’s one less mouth for their own family to feed. Others said the cost of school supplies meant they couldn’t get an education, and once they were no longer studying, getting married seemed like an automatic next step.
Many married children were angry about being denied a childhood and the life they imagine they could have had if they’d married later, but that was coupled with the resigned acceptance shown by Narendra, Sushma, and Sapana. This is just what happens, there isn’t really a choice, many said.
Child marriages are frequently arranged by parents or other family members, but Barr also found an increase in so-called “love marriages,” with children themselves initiating the marriage.
“Sometimes there are rumors in a village about a relationship, so the children think they have to get married to stop the gossip,” Barr said. “Or they are so terrified of pregnancy and don’t have any knowledge of contraception, so they feel that if they had sex or want to have sex they must get married.”
Child brides often quickly become pregnant. But because their bodies are not yet fully matured they are at heightened risk of complications during birth, low birth weight for the infant, and other health consequences that can lead to long-term health problems and even death for both mother and child.
Child marriage is also harmful for boys, Barr said. Narendra said he has spent his whole life trying to get an education to support the family that he had far too early.
Nepal’s government is working with the United Nations and nongovernmental groups to develop a plan for how it will keep its pledge of ending child marriage by 2030 – having already pushed back the original goal of 2020. But the process is moving slowly, and in villages there is little sign of change and no sign of a new government effort to tackle the problem.
To have any chance of meeting the 2030 deadline, the government should create a detailed plan and begin putting it into effect immediately—there is no time to waste. The plan should have specific tasks for each of the ministries involved—not just the ministry of women and children, but also of education and health, the police, and the local government. At the village level, officials should stop accepting and registering child marriages.
The government should boost its public awareness programs and publicize its free family planning services. It should also require that children attend school and develop mechanisms to identify and reach out-of-school children.
Human Rights Watch is also asking donor countries, include the US, the U.K., Japan, Germany, Norway, and Finland, to examine how their aid money is being used to end child marriage and to both urge the Nepal government to move forward and support its efforts.
Without this, families like those of Narendra, Sushma and Sapana will continue to marry off their children, denying them not only their childhood, but their rights to education, health, and the choice of their partner.
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