In Nepal, many children enter into so-called love marriages to escape desperate situations at home. But while these are marriages of choice, activists warn the damage to girls’ prospects is as bad as if they had been forced to marry.
Kumari Pariyar was just 10 when her parents pulled her out of school so she could contribute to the family income as a domestic worker. She told researchers at Human Rights Watch (HRW) that her father used to drink heavily and beat her. Three years later, aged just 13, she ran away to get married.
“If I had studied I would have known better – I would have known about marriage and everything,” she told the researchers. Instead, she became one of hundreds of Nepali girls trying to escape desperate circumstances at home by marrying at a young age.
Sanjita Pariyar (who shares a common surname with Kumari) was friends with a boy a year older than her at school. Her teachers disapproved of their friendship because Sanjita is in a higher caste than the boy, so they punished her for spending time with him. “They used to beat me with sticks and pull me out of morning assembly and beat me in front of my friends,” she told HRW.
When the abuse started, Sanjita wasn’t romantically involved with the boy. But when the beatings got to be too much, she decided her only option was to run away with the boy and marry him.
“My future changed because of these teachers,” she said. “I don’t wish this on anyone else.”
Both Kumari and Sanjita are suffering the consequences of marrying young. They both missed out on an education and both say they wish they had been able to enjoy more of their childhood before leaving home. That their parents didn’t arrange their marriages gives the appearance their unions were born out of choice – what in Nepali society is often referred to as a love marriage. But both children married as a way to escape difficult circumstances. Love was never part of the decision.
Nepal has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, despite the fact that the practice has been officially banned in the country since 1963. Currently, 37 percent of girls are married before the age of 18. It’s not uncommon in certain communities for girls to be married before the age of 10. And sometimes, children are even married as babies, according to HRW. In those cases, the baby girl stays with her family until she grows up and gets her first period, at which point there is another ceremony and she moves in with her husband.
Aid agencies and NGOs have for a long time been targeting communities where early marriage is common, encouraging families to keep their girls in school and delay matches until their bodies are more mature. So-called love marriages are considered by some communities to be a sign of sexual freedom among teens, despite the fact they are motivated by the same sense of desperation that drives many arranged marriages. A new report by HRW says more needs to be done to tackle child marriage of all types in Nepal, including marriages arranged by the children themselves.
“Girls who marry through love marriages face all the same harmful consequences as girls married off by their parents,” says Heather Barr, senior researcher on women’s rights in Asia for HRW. “But many people – including some police and other government officials – don’t seem to see love marriages as a problem, or at least not one the government can solve.”
According to the report, some girls enter love marriages believing they will have more to eat with their husband’s family or, as in Sanjita’s case, they are so miserable at home they hope life will improve if they start their own family. Peer pressure around sex can also play a powerful role, as can misleading beliefs about menstruation and virginity.
Despite having made their own choices, all the girls who married early for “love” who were interviewed for the report said they regretted the decision afterwards. Not only did they lose out on an education, like so many of the girls who are married off by their parents, but they, too, endured health risks related to early pregnancy and an increased risk of domestic violence. Rights advocates are hoping that the new evidence will help pressure the government to do more to end the practice.
“We spoke to a female police officer [in Nepal] who said she had only seen one prosecution [for child marriage] in 18 years of service,” says Barr. “The existing laws need to be stronger.”
Nepal has taken the first steps to abolishing the practice, setting up a national strategy on child marriage and pledging this year to end child marriage by 2030. But according to Barr there is still no outline for how the country will reach its goal, and prosecutions, especially in the case of love marriages, are almost nonexistent.
But there are some effective interventions happening at a local level. Anand Tamang, director of the Center for Research on Environment Health and Population Activities (CREHPA), says grassroots organizations have had some real success changing people’s attitudes to child marriage. He points to a radio program,Saathi Sanga Manka Kura (Chatting With My Best Friend), which is presented by nonprofit Equal Access Nepal every week across 29 radio stations. “[It] has been instrumental in raising awareness of the issue among young people,” he says.
Another initiative uses the experiences of men and women who married as children to warn others against making the same choice. Run by Care International, the Tipping Point program teaches men and women who married young to act as ambassadors by talking to the community about the damage their decision caused.
Above all, says Tamang, children and adolescents should play a key role in eradicating child marriage. “Not only do they know best what challenges they face, but they can also contribute new ideas and practical solutions that can be incorporated into government programming and policy,” he says.