Bikesh and Shila were married last February with all the trappings of Nepali weddings: dowry payment from the bride’s family, exchanges of visits, feasting and a brass band. Both bride and groom sat in their parents’ laps during the ceremony – Bikesh is six years old; Shila is four.
The legal age of marriage in Nepal is 18, but a 2008 report from the Family Planning Association of Nepal estimated that 60 percent of Nepali girls marry before that age. In some ethnic communities, such as the Dom group to which Bikesh and Shila’s families belong, children are married as infants.
Shila’s father told reporters, “This is our tradition. Once the children are married there is no more tension in the future when they grow up, plus it saves money. Both the ceremony and dowry are affordable.”
Child marriage puts children, especially girls, at risk and limits their freedom unfairly, say experts. UNICEF declares it a human rights violation. The UN Family Planning Agency focuses on the health risks that young girls face after early marriage. Child brides have a double pregnancy death rate of women in their 20s: In developing countries, the leading cause of death for young girls between the ages of 15 and 19 is early pregnancy. Child brides have a higher risk of being infected with sexually transmitted diseases, and their children are sicker and weaker than children born to older mothers.
See also Early Marriage Has Harmful Effects on Women by Kamala Sarup in Newsblaze, August 2007.
Eight-year-old Ajay Mallik is engaged to a seven-year-old, and will marry later this month. Ajay is the last child in his family to get married: Both of his sisters were married at two and his twin brother was married last year. Bijay says that he has no idea what marriage is and that although he has met his bride, “I don’t even know her name.”
But he likes the bicycle that was part of the dowry from the girl’s family. Financial considerations can drive child marriage as much as tradition. The dowry also included a TV and CD player and Rs 50,000, about twice the average per-person income in Nepal. Ajay’s father told the media that he had spent about Rs 40,000 on the engagement ceremony.
UNICEF says that the tradition is declining but still widespread. According to the agency, 64 million women now aged 20 to 24 were married earlier than 18.
Education is the most potent weapon to counter child marriage. Bikesh’s father claims that he has never heard of a law banning the practice. And adult opinions can be altered by effective awareness campaigns. The big win though is educating girls. The incidence of child marriage declines when girls receive more years of schooling, and when post-pubescent girls are offered skills-training programs, their rate of early marriage drops dramatically.
The skills-training programs give the girls greater options as adults and increase families’ incomes in the short term. In Nepal, that is important since the practice of child marriage is most prevalent among the poorest citizens.