While the world media is abuzz with the news of kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria, are we mindful of the girls in our homeland who are disappearing from school and subsequently from the arena of public participation and the formal job market?
According to the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) progress report 2013, while girls’ enrolment in school constitutes 50.9 percent at the lower secondary level, it falls to 49.7 percent at the secondary level. Who is responsible for keeping half of our girls out of schools even when there is no Taliban and no Boko Haram here? It’s us, the family members of each household, who decide for them, and the occupants of high offices who refuse to decide for them. We have become as dangerous to our girls as extremists elsewhere due to our cavalier attitude to the misery of girls who are manacled by marriage before their bodies and minds are prepared to face the blows of life, sans proper schooling, sans proper age.
According to the 2011 Population and Housing Census, among the Nepali married population, 48.9 percent were married before 19. As half the nation marries young, UNICEF puts Nepal among the 20 hotspot countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage. However, the Nepal Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) shows a slight decrease in the trend of early marriage. The NDHS report found that among the female population between 15 and 19 years of age, the percentage of married women was 40, 32.2 and 28.8 in the years 2001, 2006 and 2011 respectively.
Yet, the dwindling numbers offer no true solace because early marriage is still endemic in impoverished and downtrodden communities. Growing inequality among regions and communities seems to have been replicated in the landscape of early marriage—certain regions and communities that are used to marrying young for generations have not stopped. Early marriage is rampant in the Far- and Mid-Western regions, especially, among the Tarai districts bordering India. For instance, the 2011 Census claims that among the under-19 population of Kapilvastu and Dhanusha districts, 86 percent were already married.
The root of early marriage is entrenched deep beyond the dominant narrative of poverty and illiteracy. A head teacher of a lower secondary school in Ekala VDC of Rupanedhi district, Mohan P Yadav, said that he married his daughter off while she was in Grade 9. He was neither poor nor illiterate; he just could not help jumping on the bandwagon. Assigning an apt metaphor for the societal pressure he said, “When everyone in your society is running naked, you can’t hold on to your clothes for long.” He also shared that his vehicle had just been rented out for a wedding and said, “I am sure the groom was not older than five.” In the backdrop of the ubiquitous dowry system in the Tarai, families prefer to marry their daughters young so that they do not have to pay a higher price for the groom. Keeping a girl in school for a few more years means a serious financial strain on the family. When families give in to financial and societal pressure and organise big fat weddings for young children, the ‘who’s who’ of public offices—VDC secretaries, teachers and politicians—join the feast and ‘bless’ the kids, as if what’s happening is perfectly normal.
The 11th amendment to the Muluki Ain sets 18 as the minimum age of marriage with parental consent and 20 without consent. Human rights laws, however, do not acknowledge ‘parental consent’ as a substitute for an individual’s consent to marriage. In the absence of a proper vital registration system, there is ample chance for age manipulation. The punishment for child marriage is up to three years of imprisonment and a fine up to Rs 10,000. But early marriage is seldom reported because no one wants to see their own family arrested or fined. Even though anyone can file a case if he or she witnesses an early marriage, nobody wants to meddle in other families’ business. On top of that, the whistleblower runs the risk of being ostracised.
Early marriage lies at the heart of almost every problem the country is facing. The tolls of early marriage go beyond the obvious cases of infant and maternal mortality and morbidity. Early marriage not only robs girls of educational opportunities but also robs the nation of half its human capital who could be leaders, managers and what not. A report on child marriage published in 2012 depicted that 67.1 percent of males and 33.1 percent of females were not going to school because of early marriage. This means, early marriage prevents both boys and girls from attaining education.
When young people are deprived of the chance to prepare for the competitive job market, they are more likely to be frustrated and opt for the dangerous roads of crime and conflict. A recent report by UNICEF calculated the loss in schooling of married female adolescents into monetary value. It claimed that inaction on early marriage will cost Nepal Rs 74,498.53 million or 3.87 percent of the GDP.
As the deadline for the MDG approaches, Nepal is likely to fail to attain the goals to reduce dropout rates, gender disparity and other milestones because early marriage remains a bottleneck that prevents individuals and communities from prospering. If the present state of indifference towards early marriage rem-ains, Nepal will fail to realise its dream to graduate from its ‘Least Developed Country’ status in less than a decade. With the perpetuation of early marriage and violence against women, their disempowerment is going to persist.
A silver lining
The Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare is preparing to draft a national strategy against child marriage, in collaboration with the UNICEF and other organisations. Early marriage is an overarching act of violence committed against children, young people and the women of our country. So the Women Ministry should bring all organisations working for these populations together and capitalise on their particular niche.
The epidemic of early marriage does not stem from the decision of a single household—gender unresponsive schools and police offices, weak laws and poor implementation and a deep-seated disinterest towards investing in girls at all levels are also responsible for upholding the custom of child marriage. Make no mistake; it takes a consolidated—not diffused—effort to end endemic early marriage.
(The article was published in the Kathmandu Post, 3rd June, 2014)