What enters your mind when you hear the words child marriage? Most likely, it is pictures of young girls forced to become brides in accordance with cultural practices, images of two young people meeting for the first time at their wedding ceremony, and thoughts of teenagers dutifully carrying out the marital arrangements made by their family members without their input. Children across the developing world are forced or pressured into arranged marriages at staggering rates. Nepal is no exception.
But there is a newer child marriage phenomenon spreading throughout Nepal: increasingly, adolescents are running away to get married without familial consent or participation; children 13, 14, 15 years of age are eloping of their own volition.
At first blush, it may seem like the obvious response to counter this issue is education targeted toward youth, i.e., it would seem to make sense to direct the solution toward that segment of society that comprises the active agents of this practice. While I am fully in favor of educating youth and agree that this must be part of the solution, I think that the problem of voluntary child marriage in Nepal stems from something much deeper, such that the trend also needs to be addressed at the societal level.
Nepali culture rejects romantic or sexual relationships that occur outside of marriage. Even walking home from school with a member of the opposite sex may elicit negative attention and have reputational consequences. In Nepal, it is a very progressive thing to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, and such relationships have only recently started to become acceptable and only in certain big city (i.e., Kathmandu) communities. In rural areas, such relationships are unheard of. Thus, two teenagers who (quite naturally) begin to experience romantic feelings toward each other are compelled to to marry in order to legitimize the relationship.
A few days ago I sadly tore myself away from gorgeous Surkhet District and the wonderful WRRP field team members thereof whom I have grown to love and traveled back to Kathmandu. Two days ago, Sunita Maharjan, the lovely, inspiring, and free-minded Program Assistant of WRRP, and I visited the offices of Society for Local Integrated Development Nepal, or SOLID, which works to promote and protect sexual and reproductive health rights in Nepal.
Sunita and I had the pleasure of speaking with Arjun Subedi, Program Coordinator of SOLID, about his organization’s programs and approaches, including those dealing with runaway child marriage, which Arjun is quite committed to combating, because when children run away to get married, as Arjun put it, “they are running toward poverty”.
Prior to that meeting, during my last few days in Surkhet, I traveled with Deepak Chauhan, the thoughtful, hard-working, and humorous Coordinator of WRRP-West, to a village of Chinchu VDC, where I had the opportunity to spend some time with a 17-year-old girl named Durga. Durga had eloped with the boy from school whom she loved at the age of 14 and had her first child, a daughter, last year when she was only 16.
Speaking with Durga was heartbreaking and emotional. In her case, Durga ran away to get married and ended up running toward a physically and emotionally abusive husband, in-laws who terrorize her because of her membership in a caste lower than their own, and a childbirth riddled with complications. All this in addition to the poverty predicted by SOLID’s Arjun: Durga left school at 14 upon marriage and her husband, for reasons I did not have a chance to explore, is not currently working or earning.
Durga, 17, Chinchu VDC, Surkhet District, Nepal
Durga told me that she is now realizing that she married too young, but she shrugged off any questions about changing her life’s path at this point or about working to effect change in her community with respect to early marriage practices. Of course – she is 17 with a baby in her lap.
Durga, 17, of Chinchu VDC with her 1-year-old daughter
In our meeting at SOLID’s offices, Arjun spoke about SOLID’s approach to increase societal tolerance of young love. “We need to separate sex from marriage”, Arjun explained. “These kids elope because it is the only way for them to explore their attraction to the opposite sex.” One of Arjun’s objectives is to convince Nepali parents to “tolerate love” so that their children can explore their feelings outside of marriage. Further, if adolescents have to sneak around in order to spend time with members of the opposite sex, they are more likely to engage in unsafe sexual relationships.
A few days earlier at a wrap-up meeting with WRRP-West prior to my departure from Surkhet, we discussed my experience speaking with Durga and the general elopement trend among Nepali youth. I asked, “how do we create an environment in which kids are allowed to date so that they don’t feel the need to runaway and marry? What about encouraging parents to allow their adolescent children to bring over their love interests after school to talk and play in the presence of family members?”
The WRRP-West team explained how difficult a thing that would be. To the WRRP-West team members, who have extensive experience working in the communities of Surkhet, such a shift in deep-rooted Nepali culture seemed a daunting task.
So to hear Arjun talk about SOLID’s programs that actually aim to change people’s ideas in this way was exciting, but I also know that we have our work cut out for us. Arjun himself characterized this aspect of his mission as “very tough”. Sunita, who is heavily involved in WRRP’s youth programming, firmly believes that change in this area must come from an integrated approach involving all segments of society – adolescents, parents, teachers, community leaders, healthcare providers.
A further level of this issue involves the stigma facing Nepali women surrounding having multiple love interests: once a girl is associated with one boy, she is tainted. Girls in Nepal don’t live in a culture where they can have successive romantic interests. In addition, parents who worry about their daughters attaining such a reputation have an incentive to marry their daughters off early.
During my field visit to Lahan several weeks ago, I spoke with a 16-year-old girl named Binita who expressed her desire not to marry early because she wanted to complete her education and become a nurse or a teacher. Her mother, who was observing the interview, however, interjected and spoke to me about her concerns for her daughter. “I feel insecure having an unmarried adolescent daughter in my home.” Binita’s mother explained that the longer her daughter remains at home unmarried, the more likely it is that she does something to ruin her chances of marrying into a respectable family.
Binita, 16, Badarhamal VDC, Siraha District, Nepal
If parents and community members are more concerned with restricting adolescents’ premarital activities than their desires and decisions to marry early, how can we reach people on this issue? My lawyerly inclinations to outline in excruciating detail each and every way a practice violates one’s human rights doesn’t seem to be appropriate here. What I do know at this point though is that this problem is bigger than the adolescents who find themselves wrapped up in it.
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