If you take a stroll along Kathmandu’s fashionable streets and observe young women dressed in western clothes talking on their mobile phones, it is hard to believe that they live in a country with one of the world’s highest levels of child marriage, where girls as young as eight are married off to live the rest of their lives as unpaid servants in their husbands’ households.
Prosperity, awareness and access to information in Nepal are limited to big cities like Kathmandu, while citizens in rural areas live decades or centuries behind their compatriots. In impoverished villages around the country child marriage is still widely practiced, even though it is illegal.
In a male-dominated society where girls are seen as a burden on the family, Nepalese girls face steep challenges from the moment they are born. If a girl lives in a city, her luck is a little better. She will get a chance to attend school, maybe even to go to college and work outside the home. But in the villages, it is a different story.
Poverty mixed with centuries-old practices and religious dogma mean that a daughter’s education, health and general well being are not a priority. According to a report by the U.N. humanitarian news agency, IRIN, girls as young as eight are being married off in Tharu villages in the Terai region.
Parents have just two choices for their daughters – they can work as bonded laborers for the wealthy or get married. Recently, due to a sustained campaign against slave labor, more girls are getting married. A similar campaign against child marriages, unfortunately, is yet to begin.
The practice of child marriage is not limited to the Terai region, it happens in the hilly region of the country too. Common factors bind Terai and the hills – poverty and lack of awareness – and contribute to the continuation of the practice.
This barbarian practice means that girls are missing out on education and opportunities to explore their talents. After marriage girls very rarely continue their education, if they were lucky enough to be in school to begin with. They become unpaid servants in their husbands’ homes.
Getting pregnant at a young age is also a real problem for child brides. It brings in significant health risks, amplified by the fact that they have limited access to healthcare and little knowledge about pre-natal health.
Nepal’s Demographic Health Survey says that over 63 percent of girls marry before 18, and 7 percent are married before they are 10. The numbers are staggering. Unfortunately, ending child marriages stands pretty low on the government’s list of priorities. Government officials are consumed by seemingly endless bickering and in-fighting and entangled in corruption scandals.
Various organizations, national and international, devoted to women’s causes pour huge amounts of money into awareness campaigns every year but the results are slow. Now some students have taken it upon themselves to try to stop child marriages. In villages across Nepal, students are forming clubs and organizing their members to go around in the community speaking about the ills of child marriages.
The efforts of these young community soldiers are the only ray of hope I see for the thousands of Nepalese girls who deserve to enjoy their childhood.