Heather Webb

Heather Webb (Women’s Reproductive Rights Program - WRRP): Heather earned her BA in psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2004, and then studied law at the New York Law School in 2008. After Law School, Heather practiced law for nearly three years in the corporate department of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP. At the time of her fellowship, Heather was studying for a Master’s degree in international law at the New York University School of Law with a focus on international human rights law. While at NYU, Heather also worked as an Advocacy Volunteer for MADRE, and an Intern for the Legal Advocacy Program of CONNECT, a domestic violence organization. During the Fall semester, Heather served as a Legal Intern for Human Rights Watch, where she worked for the Disability Rights Researcher/Advocate. After her fellowship she wrote: “Through my fellowship with WRRP, I have learned so much about life from a very different perspective. I have found it amazing how the layers of understanding keep peeling away the longer I stay here and the more I experience in rural Nepal. This experience has been a life-changing one and has reaffirmed my commitment to a career advancing human rights.”



THE ROLE OF LAW: CHILD MARRIAGE AND A CASE FOR A STRENGTHENED RULE OF LAW

16 Sep

“Not through the legal system.  That doesn’t work.”

I was in a meeting a few weeks ago with the members of the Women’s Reproductive Rights Forum* of Dahachaur VDC, located in Surkhet District, when the conversation turned to child marriage.  The members of the forum told me that in their community girls typically get married at around the age of 14 or 15.  “There are very few cases of marriages in which the girl is over 20”, one woman added.

Members of the Dahachaur Women's Reproductive Rights Forum

Members of the Dahachaur Women’s Reproductive Rights Forum

When I asked how we can stop child marriages in Dahachaur, the husband Model Couple Campaigner, Ram Rana, explained to me that approaching it through enforcement of Nepal’s marriage laws (under Nepali law, one must be 20 to marry, or 18 with parental consent) against the will of the families involved is not effective.

Ram Rana, Model Couple Campaigner for Dahachaur VDC, Surkhet

Ram Rana, Model Couple Campaigner for Dahachaur VDC, Surkhet

Currently, I am in Kathmandu working with WRRP to develop a strategy to eliminate child marriage, a root cause of uterine prolapse, and design a long-term combined research and programming proposal toward that end, which WRRP will implement in its working areas.

Many of WRRP’s educational and awareness raising programs are not directly about enforcing the law (although WRRP does advocate at the policy level; it is in large part due to the efforts of WRRP that there is now government-funded prolapse repair surgery being provided in Nepal).  But I am a lawyer and I think that the law is an important tool to effect social change.  And here we even have the law on our side on its face!

Every time I find myself writing legal justifications into our proposal I think about what Ram said.  Ram told me about a couple of specific cases of attempts by community members to bring underage marriages to the attention of law enforcement.  The outcome in such situations is either that families protest vehemently enough that law enforcement eventually goes away or the families back down just long enough for law enforcement to go away and then marry their children anyway.

So what is the role of the law in eliminating child marriage?

The Nepali government has taken a stance on the issue: it is not legal to marry under the age of 20 (or 18).  Yet over half of Nepali women are married by the age of 18 anyway.  The law is simply disregarded in large parts of Nepal.  Families and teenagers often lie about the ages of wedding youngsters.  Many people remain uninformed about the law.  Local government officials who register marriages do not care about it.

That’s not acceptable.  I cannot help but have the opposite reaction from Ram.  I don’t give up on the law; I think it desperately needs attention, it needs strengthening.  I acknowledge that the probable response to me by a community member would be “that’s because you have that luxury; you’re not living the realities of rural Nepal”.  My rejoinder?  Exactly.  Isn’t that my job?  To give a voice to the voiceless because I can?

Let’s raise awareness among communities about marriage age requirements.  Let’s educate local officials on the importance of this law.  Let’s advocate for consequences for officials who marry persons younger than the law requires.  Let’s advocate for consequences for parents who marry off their children.

The rule of law is important.  Rule of law, peace, democracy, justice, human rights – these concepts are all interrelated and mutually reinforcing.

Almost six years after the end of the decade-long “people’s war” launched by the Communist Party of Nepal—Maoists, Nepal still struggles to form its permanent government and draft its constitution.  On May 27 of this year, the Constituent Assembly, Nepal’s interim parliament, was dissolved by Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai after it missed its deadline (again) for consensus on the constitution.

Now is not the time for giving up on the law.  Not at this fragile time in Nepal’s history.

*In each of its working areas WRRP facilitates the formation of Women’s Reproductive Rights Forums (or WRRF) at the VDC level, which serve as forums in which members can raise their voices about the reproductive issues they face within safe and supportive communities comprising their fellow community members.  WRRFs are a tool of empowerment.

Posted By Heather Webb

Posted Sep 16th, 2012

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