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Nepal’s child brides suffer as poverty reinforces social custom

By Bibek Bhandari–For Meena Chaudhary, this year will mark not only her sixth wedding anniversary, but also five years since her newborn baby died in the delivery room.Now in her early twenties, Chaudhary was married at 15 and pregnant by the following year, but a complicated antenatal period coupled with a lack of adequate health care in Nihalpur, her village in western Nepal, meant this young adult’s life had already been tainted with almost unspeakable grief before her teenage years were out.

“We didn’t even know what marriage was,” said Chaudhary’s husband Ramesh, who is a few months younger than her, as both of them sat outside their single-room mud-built house. “We didn’t know what we were doing.”Chaudhary’s story paints a stark picture of conservative Nepal, a country of 29 million people, where traditional customs remain deeply rooted.

According to the latest government report published by the Central Child Welfare Board under Nepal’s Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, 34 per cent of all new marriages in Nepal involve children under the age of 15. Yet, according to Nepali law, marriages involving those under the age of 18 are deemed to be “child marriages” and are illegal.

But in some communities, especially in the south of the country, these numbers are even higher, according to Kirti Thapa, who works at Nepal’s Save the Children child protection department.

“The rate of marriage for people under the age of 15 is more than 50 per cent in some communities,” Thapa said.

The wedding ceremony itself is considered to be one of the most important rituals in Nepal. It’s a social service that holds religious connotations. Folklore would have it that weddings are made in heaven.

“People don’t want to interfere and obstruct something good,” said Rambhajan Yadav, who has been working in advocacy projects against child marriage in Janakpur, a town south-east of the capital Kathmandu.

Yadav has also travelled extensively and worked in districts like Dhanusha, Mahottari and Rupandehi in Nepal’s southern belt, where there is a high rate of child marriage. The statistics from the area, according to Yadav’s estimates, are alarming.

“In Rupandehi, 89.5 per cent of girls are still married young, mostly under 18,” he said. “The figures in Dhanusha stand at 59 per cent and Mahottari at 51 per cent.”

Lack of awareness of the laws, social pressure and the low economic status of the family drive these statistics, Yadav said. In certain communities, the amount of dowry that is due increases in proportion with the girl’s age, making parents give away their daughters as early as they reasonably can.

A recent report by Care Nepal, an international non-government organisation, states that more than 72 per cent of families cited poverty as the prime reason for allowing their daughters to marry young. The World Bank index reveals that 55.1 per cent of Nepal’s population lives on under Dh5 per day.

But child marriages aren’t the only problems of rural Nepal.

Ambika Pradhan, born and brought up in Kathmandu, was married when she was 15. Her family had started looking for a suitable groom two years earlier.

A conservative family, Pradhan’s parents did not think it was necessary for their daughter to finish her education once they had found her a husband. Indeed, after she married, she stopped studying.

Experts working in the field of child rights see this as one of the key factors that exclude girls from education.

The adult literacy rate in Nepal for men is 71.6 per cent and 44.5 per cent for women. According to the Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2011, of the 7.6 million adult illiterates in Nepal, 67 per cent are female.

Pradhan, who is now 35, also talked about the health problems she faced when she delivered her first child at 16. (source : .Thenational)

Published Date: Friday, May 11th, 2012 | 10:28 AM

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