Child marriage in Nepal: eloped at 13, mother by 17

Sita Pariyar is now 45, she has been married 30 years. Shanti BK married as a teen and is now 26. Asha Magar was married at 13, became a mother at 17, and is now 20 years old.

All three women are from Surkhet, one of the districts in Nepal where despite a sharp rise in female literacy, the average age of marriage is still low. They say it was a mistake to get married so young, and are determined to convince others like them to wait till they are older.

“I endured such hardship because I got married young, but back then I didn’t know any better,” says Sita Pariyar who got married at 15 and had four children by the time she was 20. “I tell my children they should not make the mistake I did.”

Pariyar’s husband eloped with another woman and abandoned her with the children when she was only 20. “There were days when I had nothing to feed my children. Fathers may ignore their children, but mothers cannot,” says Pariyar, who broke stones by the river to earn money to buy food for her four children.

Pariyar has got over years of physical and sexual abuse and the heavy burden of motherhood that resulted from marrying young. Two of her sons got married after age 20, and her 17-year-old daughter is preparing for her Grade 10 exams with no intention of getting married yet.

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Rika BK of Udaypur got married at 18, to a Kamal BK who was 16. After going through many hardships including a miscarriage, the couple now advocate against child marriage. Photo: Nissi Thapa

Despite improved literacy, Nepal still has the third highest rate of child marriage in South Asia, and is among the world’s top 10 countries for the practice. The country has committed to end child marriage by 2030, raised the minimum age of marriage to 20 in the 2018 Civil Code. Yet more than 36% of girls continue to marry before they are 18.

Surkhet is among the country’s top 15 districts for child marriage, and Manju Chaudhary at the Women’s Division of the District Police Office admits it has been difficult to raise the average age of marriage.

“When we get complaints about an impending child marriage, we stop it by separating the children and taking legal action against the parents,” says Chaudhary. “But if a couple is already married, then there is nothing we can do, since it is socially unacceptable for the girl to go back to her single life.”

A child marriage is legally void, but adolescents often elope because of lack of education. Sharmila BK, a counsellor in Surkhet says that easy access to Facebook these days has increased interaction among boys and girls, leading to teen marriages. “Though both young men and women are involved in child marriages, it is often the girl who ends up facing the unequal burden,” she says.

Take 26-year-old Shanki BK who eloped at 17 to a man five years older. She was back in her parent’s home at 22 because her husband drank a lot, beat her regularly, had affairs, and neglected their children. Today, the young mother of two is taking a beautician’s course so she can support her children.

“It is very difficult for my parents, since they have to look after me and my two children. Now I want to stand on my own feet,” says BK.

She rues that she dropped out of school, and speaks wistfully of friends who graduated to get jobs in the government or NGOs. Nepali has registered her children in a private school, but admits she has no money to pay for it. She would like to get a divorce, but does not have the Rs10,000 required.

With education and employment prospects cut short by early marriage, many women are trapped --  facing heavy responsibilities but with little money. Asha Magar, 20, looks like a college student but her youthful demeanour belies her burden. Having eloped at 13, she  became a mother at 17. The fifth-grade dropout was unable to register her child’s birth, because her underage marriage was illegal.

Magar doesn’t even have a citizenship certificate because she married before she was eligible for it, and now her husband thinks she doesn’t need it. “Citizenship is required for everything: voting,  bank accounts and even to register for skills training,” says Magar who is learning to weave so she can earn money.

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Magar got unwillingly pregnant because of social pressure, and most married underage girls do not have access to contraceptives and no control over when to have children. Since adolescent bodies are not fully prepared for childbirth, many teenage women have maternity complications with lasting health issues. They are also more vulnerable to domestic violence and sexual abuse, and isolation means that they are denied medical and legal help.

“Child marriage is a human right violation, it denies child brides the right to life and health, non-discrimination and equality, including the right to consent to marriage, and the right to determine the number, spacing and timing of children,” says reproductive rights activist Sonali Regmi.

While the police office in Surkhet receives barely five child marriage complaints every year, there are dozens against polygamy and hundreds against domestic abuse. All are linked, say social workers.

“Surkhet is a melting pot where people from the mountain districts settle temporarily before moving on. Men often migrate to India for work, and after such separation it is normal for both men and women to find other partners, leading to conflict and domestic abuse,” says Roshna Kafle of the Kopila Valley School, adding that child marriage, polygamy and domestic abuse are all related.

Child brides like Sita Pariyar have now turned into activists. Research by the group Girls not Brides found that more than 60% of child brides later felt that they married too young, while more than 70% of those who married after 18 felt that it had been the right time. It found that education and jobs can reduce the practice.

The solutions are clear: increase school enrolment of girls, create a girl-friendly school environment, and empower women and girls economically. Girls already married need to learn about reproductive health and contraception.

Says Ananda Tamang of Girls not Brides: “Just focusing on girls is not enough. We need to involve men and boys as well in child marriage prevention strategies, improve the security of girls in public spaces, and enforce the laws and policies against child marriage.”

Some names have been changed.

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