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Child Marriage Defies Laws in Nepal

Though illegal, Nepali girls are often married off in their teens. Credit: Naresh Newar/IPS

Though illegal, Nepali girls are often married off in their teens. Credit: Naresh Newar/IPS

KATHMANDU, Oct 11 2012 (IPS) - Social activists in Nepal agree that the one reason why this impoverished country will miss the gender-linked Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of the United Nations is the persistence of child marriage.

Nepal’s marriage law stipulates 20 years as the legal age for marriage for both sexes, but current records at the ministry of health and population show at least 23 percent of  girls getting married off at 15 – 19 years.

“Early marriage should be stopped because it not only affects girls’ education but also their health,” Sumon Tuladhar, education specialist at the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), tells IPS.

While MDG 2 pushes for universal primary education, MDG3 seeks to promote gender equality and empower women. Child marriage works against MDG 4, that is concerned with reducing child mortality, as also MDG 5 that aims to improve maternal health.

“We certainly need to strongly lobby against early marriage, but we are hampered by a very poor monitoring system to implement the existing law,” Dibya Dawadi, deputy director-general in the department of education, told IPS.

But, for both the government as well as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) concerned with child marriage, enforcing the law is a dilemma because legal action means prosecuting the parents.

“Sticking a mother in jail is not helpful when she may have other young children with no one to feed and protect them,” Helen Sherpa from World Education, an international NGO, tells IPS.

Activists, however, believe that change should tackle the root of the problem – their economic situation, because daughters provide valuable help in the household and on the farms in the rural areas.

“Our biggest challenge is the family’s attitude towards educating their girls,” says Dawadi.

Many rural families marry off their daughters at the age of 11 – 13 because the older a girl gets the higher the dowry demand.

Kamala Chepang was married off at 13 because her parents could not afford to educate all their children.

“I see my young siblings going to school and this makes me happy,” Kamala told IPS in the remote Shaktikhor village of Chitwan district, 300 km southwest of the capital.

Thousands of young girls like Kamala, especially from the most marginalised communities like the Chepangs, are unable to continue their education due to poverty, social barriers and a lack of schools in the remote rural areas.

Although the trend of sending young daughters to their husbands’ home has changed and most of them stay with their mothers till they reach 16, their lives change drastically after marriage and they rarely return to school.

“After marriage, these girls rarely come back to school and even if they do, their performance is very poor,” says Tuladhar from UNICEF. “Early marriage negatively impacts their self confidence.”

According to UNICEF, 51 percent of Nepalese were married as children. Nepal’s 2006 demographic and health survey found that among Nepalese women in the 20 – 49 age group, 60 percent were married by the time they reached 18.

Nepal scores poorly on gender disparity. In 2011  Nepal stood 126th out of 135 countries in the ‘Global Gender Gap’ index of the  World Economic Forum.

“Early marriage changes a girl’s life options because parents no longer want to invest in ‘someone else’s property’,” says Kaman Singh Chepang, an activist from Nepal Chepang Association, an NGO working for the Chepang community.

Dire poverty and lack of government initiatives to get girls to school are among reasons that Chepang cites for the situation of girls in Nepal, a country where more than half of a total population of  30 million people live on less than 1.25 dollars a day.

Chepang believes that if child marriage is to be eradicated there should be close coordination among government sectors dealing with health, education, poverty and culture and also give priority to basic schooling. “But the government is unready for any such initiative.”

In the remote villages, girls may have to walk hours to reach their classrooms, and by the time they return home they are too exhausted to do their homework. In the end, they just drop out and help their parents until they are married off.

Child marriage not only denies girls an education, it often makes them vulnerable to a cycle of discrimination, domestic violence and abuse. By being made to bear children when they have barely attained puberty, they are forced to put themselves and their babies at risk, activists say.

“Child marriage is extreme denial of children’s rights. Many girls also suffer from abusive marriages as they are married to older boys,” said Sherpa from World Education.

 
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  • Jovina

    If the marriages are declared illegal, that might help. Do not recognize the marriage. It is a fraud.

  • gerry

    They would call these men who marry children pedophiles in ninety percent of the world.

  • valhalla

    Women in most cultures are not treated as equal to men -even in the developed ones -such as wages etc-in the undeveloped ones- they are denied education -and forced into these early marriages and so the cycle continues,men are the main instigators of this as they want to keep women under -their control -in other words -barefoot and pregnant,not until -women -turn and change this apalling situation -it will continue-the hand that rocks the cradle -rules the world.

  • otropogo

    “Nepal’s marriage law stipulates 20 years as the legal age for marriage for both sexes, but current records at the ministry of health and population show at least
    23 percent of girls getting married off at 15 – 19 years. ”
    and yet

    “Many rural families marry off their daughters at the age of 11 – 13 because the older a girl gets the higher the dowry demand. ”

    Will the relevant statistic please stand up? Perhaps the one that says how many women are first married at age 20, or even at age 16?

    Unenforced (and unenforceable) laws are of no use to women. In fact, they impede progress because they allow government and its patrons in a society’s real power structure to pretend there is no problem, or that nothing more can be done.

    What women, and especially young women, need is the power to decide when and with whom they will mate, and for how long, and whether and when they will have children. And this power has to be real, not a fiction on a legal document. One provides this power by means of universally available contraceptive education and aids, including abortion on demand, strong, diligently enforced sanctions against physical assault, including beatings by parents and rape by husbands, and child support for the offspring of estranged couples.

    When one considers that women don’t yet have this power in most developed democratic societies, it would be surprising to find it in the developing world.

  • otropogo

    “Women in most cultures are not treated as equal to me”…”…men are the main instigators…”

    The role of men in keeping the male-female status quo in societies is not supported by the anecdotal evidence, and so far as I know, there have been no scientific studies to support it.

    On the contrary, the majority of honour killings reported involve the active participation or encouragement of the crime by a mother or a grandmother of the victim. And bride immolations in India are often reported as spurred on by animosity of the mother-in-law for the bride.

    And even in the developed world, it was noted in Switzerland, upon the recent enfranchisement of women only a few decades ago, that there was a distinct redirection of social policy towards conservatism. The female offspring of the ruling classes of the oil rich states of the Persian Gulf certainly cannot be considered deprived of health or education, and yet they submit docilely to social constraints that are both humiliating and senseless.

    Women with a first class eduction, a small personal fortune, and the freedom to travel anywhere in the world, can scarcely be considered victims, and yet the great majority of these privileged women implicitly support the shackles imposed by their society by their silence. And the most privileged among them, such as the first ladies of Syria, Jordan, and Qatar, are assisted in propping up these authoritarian sexist regimes by their Western counterparts, who, instead of ostracizing them, embrace them as kindred spirits.

    As the old saying goes, “the hand that rocks the cradle…” is the one that determines the character of the child.

  • otropogo

    “Women in most cultures are not treated as equal to me”…”…men are the main instigators…”

    The role of men in keeping the male-female status quo in societies is not supported by the anecdotal evidence, and so far as I know, there have been no scientific studies to support it.

    On the contrary, the majority of honour killings reported involve the active participation or encouragement of the crime by a mother or a grandmother of the victim. And bride immolations in India are often reported as spurred on by animosity of the mother-in-law for the bride.

    And even in the developed world, it was noted in Switzerland, upon the recent enfranchisement of women only a few decades ago, that there was a distinct redirection of social policy towards conservatism. The female offspring of the ruling classes of the oil rich states of the Persian Gulf certainly cannot be considered deprived of health or education, and yet they submit docilely to social constraints that are both humiliating and senseless.

    Women with a first class eduction, a small personal fortune, and the freedom to travel anywhere in the world, can scarcely be considered victims, and yet the great majority of these privileged women implicitly support the shackles imposed by their society by their silence. And the most privileged among them, such as the first ladies of Syria, Jordan, and Qatar, are assisted in propping up these authoritarian sexist regimes by their Western counterparts, who, instead of ostracizing them, embrace them as kindred spirits.

    As the old saying goes, “the hand that rocks the cradle…” is the one that determines the character of the child.

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