Two years ago, Rama Thapa of Budhiganga Municipality in Bajura was a 14-year-old student studying in grade 9. She loved going to school, and had great plans for the future. Today, Rama is a 16-year-old mother to a child who will be turning two soon. “I have now come to realise that early pregnancy and childbearing put my education on hold,” she said. “I don’t know whether to pursue higher education or raise my daughter.” The solution lies in a more intensive education campaign so that youngsters will understand the consequences of early marriage and early pregnancy.
Rama believes that things would have been very different if she had been smarter as a teenager.
Stories like Rama’s are all too common in many rural communities. During my recent visit to the far western region, I found out that child marriage continues to be the norm. As elsewhere, the drivers of child marriage include deeply entrenched cultural norms, gender inequality, child labour, low access to education, social pressures and harmful practices. Discussions with women who got married at an early age revealed that widespread use of mobile phones and social networking sites such as Facebook have led to an increase in child marriage. Children can be seen carrying mobile phones from an early age, and misuse of communication mediums is the main reason for the increase in child marriage, they said.
According to a 2012 study by Save the Children, World Vision International and Plan International, the prevalence of child marriage varies significantly among ethnic, religious and caste groups, with incidences being the highest among marginalised and so-called low caste communities. The International Legal Framework relating to child marriage emphasises the best interest of the child, and therefore, addresses the minimum age for marriage, consent from both parties and protection from prejudicial traditional practices.
A prevalent problem
The constitution of Nepal has explicitly prohibited child marriage for the first time in the country’s constitutional history, and provides for compensation to the victims by the perpetrators. Even though child marriage is a human rights violation and detrimental to the rights of girls and women to health, education and to live free from violence, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) says that 37 percent of Nepali girls marry before the age of 18, and 10 percent are married by age 15.
Efforts are being made at the central and local levels to eliminate child marriage. The government of Nepal organised the Nepal Girl Summit to follow the landmark London Girl Summit in 2014 to reaffirm its commitment to end child marriage by 2030. A national plan to reduce child marriage is another step to this end. The new Local Government Operation Act also constitutes an important step towards preventing social evils such as child marriage. This is the right time for the local levels to develop a plan through consultations with clear lines of responsibility across different government institutions.
Education key for change
In addition, community-based structures have actively worked to raise awareness against child marriage. As a result, improvements are being seen and many developments have happened to fight this harmful practice. But all these activities will not be sustainable and won’t work in an effective and productive manner unless it is ensured that children, especially girls, have access to quality education, particularly on sexual and reproductive health and rights, and remain in education for as many years as possible.
Field experiences show that as long as adolescent girls receive knowledge about reproductive health and social issues surrounding child marriage, they not only decide not to marry early, but also create a protective peer pressure that has a positive impact on their friends and families too.
Changing a social norm like child marriage might seem like a daunting task, but experiences in the far west and elsewhere show that it can be done if everyone plays their part—the government at all levels, civil society organisations, community and religious leaders, families and the girls themselves. Together, girls need to be empowered, especially school-going youths and adolescents, to develop their knowledge with innovative games and ideas. Whatever activities are suitable at the local level can be conducted, like advocacy to combat child marriage and helping communities understand why child marriage is harmful and illegal, and why girls should not be viewed as a burden to their families. Combating violence against women, promoting women’s empowerment, providing life skill training and spreading education about rights based issues must be priority tasks to end child marriage.
Pudasaini is a human rights lawyerPublished: 2018-02-09 08:16:08