Child marriage: Much to do

As soon as a child marriage by eloping is identified in communities, schools and police should jointly nullify such “marriages” in order to stop the parents and societies from accepting it

“As I did not have enough to eat or wear clothes properly, I thought I would get a better life, so I agreed to marry when I was 14 years old” said Kamu BKa, a resident of Madi municipality, Jiwanpur Makwanpur. She had been enticed by her neighbors to “marry” Jayram BKa a 25 year old man when she was still a minor. However, although marriage was promised,  Kamu was taken by Jayram to Ludhiana, India, where he worked and they lived together for a year without any legal ties. Jayram started abusing her so she went to a group of Nepali women who lived in the neighborhood for help. On the other hand, Kamu now plans to go to work as a migrant worker in an gulf country. This puts her in further risk of being trafficked or abused.  If she indeed leaves, her two daughters who now go to a school in Madi will be at risk of child marriage or of living conditions without any basic rights that a child deserves. Out of the five siblings of Kamu, four, including three sisters and her brother are grade four and five dropouts whereas the youngest sister Parbati is now in grade nine as she has been receiving scholarships given by Rural Health Education Service Trust (RHEST), an NGO which has been putting girls in school to stop them from being trafficked, since grade three after learning that all elder siblings of Parbati had to drop out of school!

Due to the social, cultural, religious, traditional and economic conditions and now modern technology, child marriage is still persists here. On one hand, minor girls are still being enticed into better life by adults and are lured into relationships which are different forms of sexual abuse. On the other hand adolescent girls and boys marry each other “by choice” after being exposed to modern technology via the television, movies and internet. Marriage and sexual behavior of the youth of Nepal is also changing over the years and “living together” has become a trend and fashion both in the rural and urban areas.

Nepal has made progressive movements regarding girls and women’s rights. This includes  formulating and amending laws and acts which are proactive to women. However, implementation of these laws and acts are far from reality. A lot needs to be done to actually reach the goals. There have been movements against child marriage with government commitments to eradicate this. Although there is a decrease in the trend,  41% of women still get married before they turn 18, according to a report by PLAN ASIA. There has been an awareness that girls should be put to school, but adolescent activities are such that more than the “mundane studies” children, both boys and girls, seem to be more attracted towards each other and a “romantic” life which seems to beacon them without full understanding of what they are getting into. Although poverty is still a reality of Nepal both in rural and urban area, modern technology has reached all. Television, internet and mobile phones are now part of the lifestyle of most people. Adolescents now seem to taken by Bollywood movies and text each other to create a fancy world. Similarly a girl in Dhangadi recently eloped with a 16 year old boy when she was in grade 9 thinking they would have a better life together. After RHEST learnt about this together with the government school there, they hunted the girl and boy and brought the police telling them it was illegal. After seeing the police the boy disappeared, and the girl told all present there that her heart had been broken as “I had never thought the boy would betray me like this and desert me.” Now she has passed SLC last year and is in grade 11 and a change agent in her locality trying to alert girls against child marriage.

The general complaints, of both the teachers and parents, are that access to mobile phones has facilitated access to teenage romance and flight from the dire living conditions that adolescents are in. A lot of awareness on the need of putting children in school and eradicating child marriage has been done jointly by the government and NGOs. However, enough has not been done to ensure the end of child marriage. Although marriage below the age of 18 for girls and 20 for boys is termed illegal. The sexual behavior of living together and untold “marriage” below that age is still happening all over the country. There are still many girls like Kamu who are lured into a fictitious “green pasture” and unknowingly trafficked. There are also many children born to such victims who are further pushed into darkness and a future even worse.

A combined effort between the government, schools, parents, youth and NGOS is required now to make adolescents aware of the adverse conditions of early marriage be it by will or by force.  A revision of the school curriculum is required to make both girls and boys understand this. As soon as a child marriage by eloping is identified in communities, schools and police should jointly nullify such “marriages” in order to stop the parents and societies from accepting it.

While in general parents are now opting out of arranged child marriage, sexual behavior and influence of modern technology seems to have impacted the adolescents in such a way that they themselves are “opting” for marriage without realizing the consequences. A nationwide campaign using modern technology and school education is required to end this phenomenon.

Sharma is president of Center for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) Nepal