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Child marriage in Nepal: what do you do when it’s by choice?
When 14-year-old Deumaya from Gorkha district in Nepal, talked about getting married, she said: « I met my husband in the village. He is two years older than me. It was a love marriage – we were in love. We went to another village and stayed there for some time. When we came back, people said we were married. »
Deumaya’s story is common in many rural Nepalese communities. While the number of child marriages have been decreasing, a staggering 41% of women still get married before they turn 18 despite the fact that the legal age of marriage is 20.
Child marriages and love marriages in Nepal
Despite child marriage being a human rights violation and the negative effects on girls and subsequently their children being well documented, in rural Nepal, an increasing number of these unions are considered love marriages. This is seen to be different from traditional arranged marriages, where two families come together and arrange their children’s future spouse. In villages, dating is often impossible because of social norms. When an adolescent couple decides to be together, marriage – often by eloping against their parents’ wishes – is their only choice. This practice is known to them as love marriage.
When an adolescent couple decides to be together, marriage – often by eloping against their parents’ wishes – is their only choice.
Nepal is a culturally diverse country, and the prevalence of love marriages varies between communities, regions, castes and ethnic groups. Earlier studies estimated that about 10% of marriages in rural areas were decided by the girl. We know from our interviews in the field that love marriages among adolescents are a growing trend, and more recent research confirms that more than 25% of marriages are based on the girl’s decision.
Parents attribute the growing popularity of love marriage to increased literacy and access to mass media, such as Hindi soap operas. Mobile phones are also said to play a large role by enabling adolescents to talk to their peers without their parents’ knowledge.
Complicating assumptions about child marriage
This new reality complicates many development assumptions that operate within a neat divide of regressive traditions versus progressive modern values. We have talked to many community members who told us that while awareness of child marriage grows among adults, the invasion of modern behaviours, brought by development, media, capital, and migration, now perpetuate early marriage among adolescents.
Local and international NGOs have for years called for policymakers to prioritise the issue of child marriage. There is also a rising demand for accountability and enforcement of existing legislation. Education is the best prevention against child marriage and activists recommend that efforts have to be made to improve not only girls’ enrollment, but also retention.
However, when early marriage happens because of a girl’s decision, new challenges and opportunities arise for programmes aimed at ending the cultural practice of arranged child marriages.
Including child marriage in the school curriculum
So what does this new trend mean for current work? How should development actors reflect it in their programmes? The obvious goal is to increase adolescents’ awareness of disadvantages of child marriage, as many organisations already do.
At Her Turn our workshops for girls aged 10 to 14 include child marriage in the curriculum. Our experience shows that as long as girls receive the knowledge of health and social issues surrounding child marriage, they not only decide to not marry early, but also create protective peer pressure that has a positive impact on their friends.
But there is one channel that reaches almost all adolescents and has tremendous untapped potential: the national school curriculum. Net enrollment for primary schools already exceeds 95% for both boys and girls and will soon reach 100%, meaning that every child can be taught the same things about child marriage that programmes like ours teach, in every school in the country.
« If I knew what I’ve now learned, I wouldn’t have married. »
This also means that those most at risk, marginalised children, low caste, impoverished, and remote students, will have an excellent chance to make an informed adult decision.
Deumaya is luckily still in school, but she doesn’t know for how long. Her parents initially did not support her marriage, but once she eloped, they had to agree and she moved to her in-laws house. Her chores in her new household leave little time to study. She says she is happy with her new family, but she also reflects on her choice: « If I knew what I’ve now learned, I wouldn’t have married. »
This article was first published on Guardian’s Global Development Professionals Network. Become a GDPN member to get more stories like this direct to your inbox.