Manju M, 16, Tilmaya M, 18, and Sangeeta M, 19, wait with their children outside a doctor’s office in Chitwan. The parents of Manju M, arranged her marriage to a 19-year-old man when she was 15. Tilmaya M eloped and married a 20-year-old man at the age of 15. Sangeeta M had an arranged marrage with a 20-year-old man at the age of 17. This picture was taken on April 12, 2016. Photo Courtesy: Human Rights Watch
As many as 37 percent of girls in Nepal are married off before 18 and 10 percent of them are married by the tender age of 15, according to a report published by Human Rights Watch.
KATHMANDU, Feb 17: When she was a child, Samikshya Chaudhary, 24, wanted to become a teacher. She had even overcome the challenges of being a visually-impaired person to consistently rank among the top three students of her class. Her dreams were within her reach. But things took a drastic turn when she eloped with her childhood sweetheart while studying in grade 9. They both were just 16 at the time.
“It was as if I was suddenly introduced into a world full of hardships, struggles and sorrows,” said Chaudhary, a local of Tulsipur Sub-Metropolitan City in Dang district. “My Chhetri husband's family didn't accept our inter-caste marriage. I gave birth to a child in the first year of marriage, but just three days after childbirth, my child died and this took a physical and metal toll on me.”
Although she continued her studies after marriage, she started failing in the exams and passed her School Leaving Certificate (SLC) exam with difficulty. “Poor health due to giving birth early and household chores among other challenges made me lose focus on studies and my dream,” said Chaudhary, voicing deep regrets.
Chaudhary is just a representative case. As many as 37 percent of girls in Nepal are married off before 18 and 10 percent of them are married by the tender age of 15, according to a report published by Human Rights Watch. Likewise, 49 percent of women aged 20-49 were married before turning 18, according to 2014 report 'Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey' published by the Central Bureau of Statistics and the United Nation Children's Fund. The legal age of marriage in Nepal is 20 for both sexes.
Child marriage, though a criminal offence, is still prevalent across the country. The report ranks Nepal in third highest position in Asia in terms of prevalence of child marriage. Agencies working in this field have regularly stated poverty and lack of awareness as the root causes of the practice, which have devastating consequences on the children like early school dropouts, health implications of giving birth early as well as having to give up their dreams.
Although Nepal has expressed committment to end child marriage by 2030, it is only achievable if the government demonstrates real enthusiasm to meet the target, according to activists working in this field.
“As child marriage is centuries-old tradition, government policies alone cannot bring sudden change,” said Rajan Parajuli, Resident Representative of Population Media Center, an organization that has been playing roles in spreading awareness on the issue through radio programs. “It is possible to meet the 2030 target, but achieving it depends on how the government tackles issue.”
Ramita Thagunna of Naugad Rural Municipality-4 was just 16 when she got married last year. Her mother had passed away about 12 years ago and father was dependent on daily-wage labor to feed the five-member family, which includes her two younger sisters and an elder brother. The family's income was barely sufficient for two meals a day, let alone pay for their education. As a result, she was married off to lessen the financial burden on her family, according to Sukari Dhami, her cousin.
However, her husband's mother rejected her. The in-laws forced her husband to go to India to work after three months of their marriage. Thagunna was given rough treatment, overloaded with household works and provided little food after that. She also lost contact with her husband and hence, returned to her father's home about seven months ago.
However, she has not been able to continue education owing to financial constraints. How will she get back the future she lost to child marriage? No one has the answer.
Toyam Raya, spokesperson at the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, said Nepal is making progress toward ending child marriage. “Millions of rupees have been spent on campaigns to end child marriage. Legal actions and other incentives have also caused child marriage to decrease significantly. Child marriage rate is definitely decreasing,” he said, but offered no evidence to back his statements.
Chaudhary, one of the thousands victims of child marriage in Nepal, said deciding to marry as a child was the worst decision of her life. She came to Kathmandu three years ago with her husband due to lack of support from family back home. She got enrolled at Mitrapark-based Pashupati Campus pursuing a bachelor's degree in education while her husband worked as a musician.
Again, she gave birth to a son and dropped out of the college in the first year. After a gap of two years she rejoined the college and is currently in bachelor's third year, trying her best to get back the future she dreamt of having.
While thousands of children have already lost their dreams and future to the child marriage, advocates working in the field of child rights said failure to take concrete steps toward ending child marriage would lead hundreds of future generations to go astray as well.