Last week in rural Nepal, I met an adolescent girl who shared that at age 14, her parents had tried to arrange for her to get married. However, whilst attending a local girls’ club, she had learned that child marriage is illegal and with that knowledge adamantly told her parents: “I will not get married.” In a moment of incredible bravery, she told her parents that if they moved forward, she would go to the police. Her parents relented; she is now still in school and focused on pursuing her dreams.
In Nepal, 40% of all girls and 10% of all boys are married before the age of 18. The country has the 16th highest prevalence rate of child marriage in the world. Child marriage in Nepal is mainly driven by gender inequality; poverty; attitudes around sexuality and honour; traditional practices; dowry payments; and lack of awareness and confusion about the law. Officially, the legal age of marriage is 20 for girls and boys, having been raised from 18 in 2017.
In 2016, the government launched a national strategy, which was formulated with active participation from civil society organisations, development partners, UN agencies, Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage, and Girls Not Brides Nepal. Following disruptions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Girls Not Brides Nepal – a national partnership of 21 non-governmental organisations from seven provinces – is advocating for the revival of this flagship document, alongside the implementation of related action plans and budgets at the provincial and district levels.
I travelled to Nepal with colleagues from the Girls First Fund, VOW for Girls and Girls Not Brides to visit organisations that are working at the local level to end child marriage. We wanted to learn more about child marriage in Nepal and see how community-based organisations – supported by the Girls First Fund and VOW for Girls – are ensuring that children and adolescents can stay out of marriage and choose their own futures. The Girls First Fund provides total support of $1.49 million over two years to 31 Nepalese partner organisations; the average grant size is $45,500.
We spent most of the week in rural communities in Bara district and Dhanusha district in Province #2, which is in south-east Nepal and borders with India. These are hard-to-access places, where poverty is widespread.
There was so much to celebrate
The organisations that we visited all use multi-disciplinary approaches; programming includes a community-specific mix of girls’ clubs, sensitisation programmes for parents, sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) courses, vocational training and economic empowerment, and community engagement efforts. It was encouraging to see how mayors, municipal officials, local religious leaders, police officers, school principals and teachers seemed supportive of these programmes.
We visited many girls’ clubs like the one where the girl who convinced her parents not to marry her at age 14 had learnt about her rights. These clubs offer a safe space for girls to get together; learn about their legal rights, their bodies and reproductive health; find their voice; and, in some cases, gain confidence to become advocates for change. The girls told us how they gain knowledge, respect, friendships, and some freedom by attending the clubs. The teachers indicated that girls in the clubs were most likely to remain enrolled in school until graduation. I was excited to meet mothers who told us how they are now being educated by their own daughters about the things they learn at the girls’ clubs.
I was excited to meet mothers who told us how they are now being educated by their own daughters about the things they learn at the girls’ clubs.Mabel van Oranje
We also joined a course to teach adolescent girls and boys about menstrual hygiene and SRHR. Too often, sexuality and reproductive health are taboo issues – and lack of information and services drive child marriage. When girls and boys don’t know about their bodies, sex and contraceptives, they can’t protect themselves against unwanted pregnancy. That drives child marriage. Further, stigma around pre-marital sex encourages parents to secure marriages for their daughters before they might become sexually active. I was encouraged to hear that the boys who participate in these courses share the information that they learn with their friends, thereby busting some myths about girls and SRHR. A good example of the critical role that boys and men play in changing perceptions and attitudes about girls and women.
It is no secret that education is one of the most effective ways to keep girls out of marriage and increase their ability to earn a decent living. Yet, we heard how lack of affordable (disposable) menstrual pads means that girls miss days at school, or even drop out of school. I loved to see girls in some girls’ clubs making reusable sanitary pads: a creative way of problem solving and increasing their confidence to talk about periods.
After a week in Nepal, I am encouraged about the progress that is being made: child marriage is decreasing, and there is a shift in the attitude and agency of adolescents. The government – with support from civil society organisations and their networks, like Girls Not Brides Nepal – is working to implement its national strategy to end child marriage, and the population seems well-aware of the minimum age of marriage. We saw first-hand that when local organisations work to end child marriage, a growing number of people become aware of the harms and more and more communities come together to keep girls in school and out of marriage.
We saw first-hand that when local organisations work to end child marriage, a growing number of people become aware of the harms and more and more communities come together to keep girls in school and out of marriage.Mabel van Oranje
There were also some issues of concern.
First, due to prevailing gender norms, girls and women are valued less than boys and men. Girls are ”a burden” with little or no say in the decisions that affect their lives. Even when girls are educated and empowered, they are under enormous pressure to lead a life determined by and in service to others. Gender inequality also drives the high levels of gender-based violence.
Second, while the number of child marriages initiated by parents seems to be decreasing, we heard about a growing number of self-initiated marriages or “eloping” – i.e. when two adolescents marry without parental consent. These self-initiated marriages are often referred to as “love marriages”. My impression is that they are driven by sexual attraction, rather than love or well-informed decisions. As talking about these issues is so sensitive, young people often find it hard to distinguish between these things. Given the enormous taboos around pre-marital sex, marriage is the only way in which young people can be sexually active without repercussions from their parents and community. For adolescents, marriage is the license for socially accepted sexual activity. Sadly, it seems that many of these self-initiated marriages don’t have a happy ending.
Given the enormous taboos around pre-marital sex, marriage is the only way in which young people can be sexually active without repercussions from their parents and community. For adolescents, marriage is the license for socially accepted sexual activity. Sadly, it seems that many of these self-initiated marriages don’t have a happy ending.Mabel van Oranje
Third, while increasing the legal age of marriage has led to an overall decrease it the practise, it seems that it has also caused some unintended consequences. It might have driven some marriages underground, and also led to an increase in eloping. Almost all people who we met are aware that 20 is the minimum age. Yet, child marriage still happens – either initiated by parents, or by girls and boys themselves. I got the impression that self-initiated marriages are more likely to be reported for prosecution when deemed socially unacceptable due to a caste, class or religious mismatch of the couple.
All this is a stark reminder that unless the increased minimum age of marriage is complemented with efforts to change social norms and offer alternatives, it might be ineffectual and potentially harm young people and their choices. It is important to engage adolescents – and other stakeholders with influence over their lives – in conversations about what marriage means, if it increases freedom, how to delay it, and what the alternatives might be. And let's not forget that young people, and especially marginalised girls, seem more concerned about quality education, decent jobs, access to health care and services that prevent and respond to gender-based violence than they are about the legal age of marriage.
Lastly, dowry (a price paid by the girl’s family to the boy’s family) is a major issue. The younger the girl, the lower the price. As a result, poor families are encouraged to marry their daughters off at a young age. Although the practice of dowry is legally prohibited, it seems widespread. Yet, data are hard to get – and it might be even harder to end this harmful practice.
Some final thoughts
Learning about the progress and challenges in Nepal, I was once again reminded that ending child marriage happens locally – in the lives of girls, their families and their communities. Successful interventions require leadership from those actors who know why it happens in a specific place, what needs to be done to change it, and who in the community hold the power of change.
Overall, I am excited about the progress that is happening in Nepal – and all around the world. When I started working on child marriage in 2010, we knew that ending this harmful practice wouldn’t be easy and that change won’t happen overnight. But I am, once again, impressed with the change that is possible when dedicated individuals and organisations work together to make sure that “girls can be girls, not brides”.
In the time it has taken to read this article 100 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 2 seconds
Mabel van Oranje
co-founder of Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage, the Girls First Fund and VOW for Girls