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Child marriages in Nepal

Sophie Cousins, Kathmandu Valley
May 14, 2016

Millions of young girls in Nepal are forced into arranged marriages - many of them before they turn 18. But as Sophie Cousins reports from Kathmandu Valley, an increasing number of those unions are love marriages.

Nepal Kinderheirat Mädchen
Image: Jane Mingay/Girls Not Brides

Anisha Waiba, 17, is six months pregnant and works at a carpet factory in Bhaktapur, an ancient city in Kathmandu Valley. She works from 4 a.m. until 8 p.m. every day and earns the equivalent of $100 (88 euros) per month.

She's been married for nine months and met her husband, 18, at the carpet factory that she began working at about a year ago. Waiba was never given the opportunity to go to school; instead she must support her family that live in the Terai, the southern plains of the country.

"My husband and I have to take care of our families, and because of the economic burden, I feel like I got married too early," she told DW. "A few days after delivery, I'll take the baby to the carpet factory and look after the baby by myself while working at the factory."

Waiba's story is just one of millions in Nepal. While the country has made progress on reducing child marriages, 41 percent of women get married before they turn 18 despite the legal age of marriage being 20.

But an increasing number of these unions are love marriages, rather than the traditional arranged marriage. Bound by the inability of 'dating,' adolescent couples decide to be together, and often their only option is marriage - by eloping against their parents' wishes.

Sangita Tamang, 18, lives in Batidhukui village in Bhaktapur district with her husband, whom she married one-and-a-half years ago. Within one month of meeting, they married and Tamang dropped out of school, leaving behind her dream of one day becoming a nurse. "After marriage it feels so difficult to go to school. My friends would tease me for being married - married girls don't go to school," she told DW. "I knew about the legal age of marriage from school but I couldn't resist. He's so handsome."

Tamang, who is nine months pregnant, said she was nervous about becoming a mother. "In my village people would talk negative things if a couple didn't have a baby after marriage. Because of social pressure I felt I had to have a baby."

New strategy

At the end of March Nepal launched its National Strategy to End Child Marriage, which was officially endorsed by the cabinet.

three girls sitting down copyright: Jane Mingay/Girls Not Brides
Some girls are forced into marriage at the age of 14 and have a baby at 15Image: Jane Mingay/Girls Not Brides

The vision, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals, is to end child marriage by 2030 through the empowerment of girls and adolescents, education, participation of boys and men and the delivery of health services, among other strategies to be implemented across the country.

"This issue needs to be ended. It's a crime against humanity," Dr Kiran Rupakhtee, undersecretary at the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, who worked on the strategy, told DW. "Social norms and values are dictating child marriage issues. The laws are there but it's still happening. Parents … consider girls as an economic burden."

Pragya Shah Karki, youth and adolescent development specialist at UNICEF, said the root cause of child marriage was how girls were valued in society.

She echoed Dr Rupakhtee's thoughts, adding that there were huge disparities between how girls and boys were treated and that parents often thought marriage was the only opportunity for their daughters.

Experts agree that if Nepal is going to end child marriage, other issues such as poverty, gender-based violence, income and caste issues must be addressed.

A different story

But while many girls DW spoke to in Kathmandu Valley married out of 'love,' other areas of Nepal tell a different story.

Daman, in Makwanpur district, is about five hours' drive west from Kathmandu and surrounded by vast mountains and rice paddy fields. Here a group of girls gather at the Child Welfare Society (CWS), an adolescent-friendly space.

This is the first time Sajita Tamang, 17, has shared her story. She married at 14 and had a baby at 15. Her story is not a love marriage but rather a horrific story of forced marriage and slavery.

girl behind sewing machine copyright: Jane Mingay/Girls Not Brides
Sajita Tamang repeatedly tried to escape from her arranged marriage, but her pregnancy forced her backImage: Jane Mingay/Girls Not Brides

Three years ago as she was walking home, a group of her friends took her - despite her pleas - to a small jungle nearby and introduced her to her husband-to-be.

"My friends told me to get married, that he had a big brick house and was rich. I was telling them I didn't want to get married, that I wanted to earn money and be independent," she told DW.

Under pressure, the following morning Tamang eloped with this stranger.

The next few months tell a story of hope, desperation and slavery-like conditions. After only 13 days of living with him and his family, she realized things weren't turning out the way she imagined. "On the 13th day he came home drunk, saying filthy things to me and telling me to get out of his house. My father-in-law told me, 'You're our slave - we can do anything to you.'"

No way out

Tamang repeatedly tried to escape. She was exhausted from working in the fields, tending to his family, having little food to eat and being treated like a slave.

"He said 'how are you going to go? I bought you.' I found out I was sold. I thought he was saying it in anger, but I found out it was true."

She finally escaped but found out she was pregnant. Her husband came after her and promised to look after her but again let her down.

"I wasn't happy. I wanted to get rid of the baby. I wasn't ready to give birth. I have regrets that I had the baby. I wish I didn't."

For the last year-and-a-half she has not been in touch with her husband, and she recently began a sewing training course. While she may have regrets about having a baby at a young age, she's hopeful for the future. "I want to finish this training and open a tailor shop. I want to make Indian dresses. If there's somebody who would accept my child and love me, I think I would get married again."

For Dr Rupakhtee, who is a product of child marriage, it's stories like these that make tackling child marriage so incredibly difficult.

"It's a huge task to be performed. I'm hopeful [because] we have no other way out."