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Child marriage in Nepal: what about girls?

Photo Credit: Aleksandra Perczynska

Earlier this year I visited a beautiful village in the hills of Sindhupalchok district, Nepal, and met a smart, if a little shy, 14 year-old girl named Laxmi. She told me about her school and her village two hours away.

Two weeks later, I felt a hint of despair when I found out that she had been married off. With twenty being the legal age for marriage in Nepal, the wedding was illegal, but not a secret. The school staff and Laxmi’s friends knew about it and didn’t expect to see her often from then on – it was unlikely that she would ever return to school.

Child marriage affects women and girls throughout their lives

Her story is not unique. In Nepal, 41% of girls are married before their eighteenth birthday and 10% are married before they turn fifteen.

Girls like Laxmi who get married off early rarely have access to education because they are expected to drop out of school, move to their husband’s home and perform domestic chores.

Lack of access to education is not the only challenge child brides encounter. They are twice as likely to become victims of domestic and sexual violence, and have little control over their reproductive rights, especially since their husbands are often much older.

Early pregnancy endangers their lives, as young mothers risk obstetric fistula and urinary prolapse. In fact, girls under fifteen are five times more likely to die in childbirth than are women in their twenties and complications related to early pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death of girls aged 15-19 in the developing world.

And there is her economic status and wellbeing – girls who marry young are less likely to exit the cycle of poverty.

Finding long-term solutions to preventing child marriage

For many years the issue was neglected by the aid and development community, perhaps because of its sensitive nature. Local traditions and culture, which are often used to justify child marriage, can be difficult to talk about and transform.

Fortunately, the veil of silence is slowly lifting, as groups, such as Girls Not Brides, and governments put the problem on the global agenda. In only two years, the United States government passed the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act, and the Violence Against Women Act, which specifically address child marriage in its foreign policy.

Still, the futures of thousands of Nepali children continue to be decided by adults who negotiate deals in which girls are treated like commodities. These arrangements can be a way for parents to clear debt or as part of local politics.

The futures of thousands of Nepali children continue to be decided by adults who negotiate deals in which girls are treated like commodities.

Poverty, traditions like dowry and discriminatory social perceptions, like the stigma attached to women past “marriageable age” continue to relegate women and girls to second-class citizens. Girls are perceived as liability, not assets to their communities.

To tackle these perceptions, it is essential to recognize the link between education and sustainable development. Everywhere in the developing world, there is a clear correlation: the more prevalent child marriage is the less years of schooling girls receive. Countless studies show that girls’ education has a positive impact on health, economy, poverty reduction for themselves and their communities.

And many NGOs and INGOs working in Nepal are doing exactly that. They provide scholarships for girls, conduct girls’ and women’s empowerment and poverty reduction programs. Nepal Demographic Health Survey 2011 shows some positive trends, as the average age at marriage keeps increasing.

But is this the best we can do for Nepali girls? Progress seems slow.

More needs to be done to prioritize the issue: advocacy, legal education on local and national level, law enforcement mechanisms, and focus not only on girls’ school enrolment but also on attendance and retention.

Child marriage means disempowerment for life

Forty years ago Carol Hanisch famously said that “personal is political.” Today it is as accurate as ever.

Parents’ decision to marry off their daughter before she reaches adulthood results in her disempowerment for life. They determine her future, access to resources and her participation in the public sphere. 

Parents’ decision to marry off their daughter before she reaches adulthood results in her disempowerment for life.

Each of these individual family decisions, taken behind closed doors, becomes political when we notice the connection between the prevalence of child marriage and the under-representation of women in public debate, social institutions and the government.

Arguments in favour of child marriage often state that it’s a part of people’s traditions or ethnic identities. As much as I believe these things are fundamental, I know, even as a foreigner, there are many other ways to celebrate cultures without violating human rights.

Others say that a married girl is safer from potential sexual predators. I reject this argument, because the husband can be an assailant, too. Pervasive sexual violence should be addressed with effective prevention measures, not by taking away a girl’s freedoms.

Child marriage: it’s time to stop ignoring the problem.

So there.

It happens all the time, every day, to girls like Laxmi.

Almost half of girls in Nepal will be married before they turn 18. These numbers tell us something important. They tell us there is an elephant in the room – child marriage is a public secret that everyone knows but nobody talks about. It is complex, sensitive, disturbing and messy.

But it’s time to stop ignoring the problem and start acting, if we are serious about Nepal’s development and human rights.

A longer version of this article was originally published in Republica daily on July 20th 2012.