A 12-year-old girl getting married might be unheard of in advanced countries but not in Third World countries like Nepal. Child marriage is immensely practised in Nepal, especially in the rural areas. It may be a tradition in some places, but children are known to flee their homes and get married to escape from their poor socio-economic condition.
"My brother, relatives and friends also eloped at an early age. Now, they never sleep hungry," said a 12-year-old girl from the Dalit community during my field visit. According to the 2011 census, 13.6 percent of Nepal's population constitutes Dalits, and half of them live in poverty. So they try to get married at an early age in search of a better life. This is also the case in other communities.
According to UNICEF, Nepal has one of the highest rates of child marriage for both girls and boys in Asia. More than a third of young women aged 20-24 report getting married by the age of 18.
Child marriage is a violation of human rights. The children are not able to continue with their education and are limited to low-paying jobs. The responsibilities increase when the couples have children, and they get trapped in the vicious circle of poverty. Girls are at higher risk than boys. UNICEF found that one in three married girls in Nepal had been subjected to sexual violence by husbands.
Child marriage has been illegal in Nepal since 1963. But lack of good governance and public awareness has made the laws less effective. A National Child Rights Council (NCRC) has been formed to provide suggestions to the federal, provincial and local government on adopting the required policy, plan, programme and institutional measures to protect and promote child rights.
But it too has failed to implement the policies effectively due to lack of coordination with the local governments.
Nepal has also included ending child marriage in the Sustainable Development Goals 2030. But will the goal be attained by then? Yes, there are many INGOs and NGOs working to end child marriage in Nepal.
But, even their contribution is minimal.
What is required is the joint effort of every actor. Local governments should implement the policies and laws and take action as suggested by the NCRC. Strong and durable action is needed from the side of the central, provincial and local government as well. There is a need of family law to protect such children. There should be proper monitoring and tracing of children. The educated members of society, instead of pointing fingers only at the government and the families for being irresponsible, should also be actively involved in creating awareness among the families.
A version of this article appears in the print on May 14, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.