As World Makes Gains Against Child Marriage, Nepal Struggles to Catch Up

Rakesh Sada, 19, who is not related to Rajesh Sada, and his wife, Punti, 18, with their two daughters outside their home in the southern district of Saptari, Nepal on Saturday, June 1, 2019. The couple were married three years ago. Nepal’s government is moving forward with a campaign to eradicate child marriage, but the challenges are daunting, as activists say the marriages are increasing in some villages. (Lauren DeCicca/The New York Times)

Bhadra Sharma and Kai Schultz

c.2019 New York Times News Service


GORGAMA, Nepal — In Nepal’s hot southern plains, Rajesh Sada’s mother had one wish: that she would live to see the marriage of her 16-year-old son before she succumbed to tuberculosis.


It took only a few days to find a bride. In March, several days before his mother died, Rajesh exchanged vows — with a 15-year-old girl he did not know. Five of his siblings — all married as teenagers — smiled and congratulated him. They saw no reason to question the moment.


“I don’t think anything is wrong with child marriage,” Rajesh said recently outside his small hut made of mud, stone and dried grass. “It happens everywhere here. It is an expectation.”


In many parts of the world, the battle against child marriage is being won, with global rates dropping significantly over the past decade, largely because of progress in South Asia. But the story is complicated in Nepal, one of the region’s poorest countries, where activists say these marriages are increasing in some villages.


According to new data released Friday by UNICEF, about 765 million people alive today were married as children. Nepal has some of the world’s highest rates of such marriages, UNICEF found, even though the practice has technically been illegal in the country since 1963.


Nearly 40% of Nepalese women between ages 20 and 24 were married by the time they turned 18, UNICEF reported, and the country also has an unusually large number of young grooms, a little-studied demographic but one with unique social pressures.


Nepal’s government is moving forward with a campaign to eradicate the practice in the coming years. The challenges, though, are daunting, many activists say.


In rural areas, activists say, some local elected officials who publicly oppose the practice still have their children married as teenagers. Literacy rates are low. Social media and mobile phones have made it easier to find prospective partners. And many in Nepal see the practice as reasonable considering the tough economic constraints in their communities.


“It is so hard to change people’s thinking,” said Ram Bahadur Chand, an official with Nepal’s child welfare board. “They do not see that child marriage destroys their futures. It is a kind of violence.”


Nepal has tried to make inroads. The government recently increased the minimum age for women to marry by two years, to 20, matching the age for men. In January, officials announced cash incentives and bicycles for families who kept their daughters in school. Activists have organized along Nepal’s border with India to intercept young brides at risk of being trafficked into prostitution. The country has vowed to eradicate child marriage by 2030, and in some districts much sooner.


But the government’s efforts have met with limited success. Apart from poverty and lack of education, activists said, the problem is partly linked to the nature of labor in Nepal, a rugged, mountainous nation powered by remittances from citizens working abroad.


Every year, hundreds of thousands of men leave Nepal for grueling construction jobs in the Persian Gulf. For poorer families, marrying their daughters to boys before they head abroad is perceived as both financially advantageous and a necessity. When villages empty of men, “families need girls to take care of the elderly and handle household activities,” said Tarak Dhital, a social activist in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital.


Pressure from parents is often enormous. Rakesh Sada, 19, who is not related to the 16-year-old Rajesh Sada, was married to his wife, Punti Sada, 18, three years ago at the insistence of Rakesh’s mother. Over that time, Rakesh said, feelings of resentment over his early marriage have increased.


They already have two young children. Punti spends part of her days giving oil massages to Rakesh’s mother, who said she was happy with the marriage. Rakesh makes a meager living driving a tractor in the southern district of Saptari.


He vowed not to allow his daughters to marry until they were at least 20. “I have no other option except to raise my family in a better way, send my children to good schools and prepare for their futures,” he said.


But the consequences of marrying at such a young age were not yet apparent to Rajesh Sada, who has soft features and a shaved head. In his village, Gorgama, where a few hundred laborers toil in brick kilns, money is hard to come by, and most people drop out of school.


With his mother now deceased, Rajesh said his wife, Punita, who moved into the family’s home, cares for his father and keeps the house running. During the day, Rajesh makes about $5 working on a construction site. He plans to leave for the Persian Gulf to earn enough money to build a new house. An early marriage, he said, was unavoidable.


“My father is old, so I had to get married,” he said. “I have no education. I couldn’t continue with school because I did not have enough resources. I have no big dreams.”


As Rajesh spoke to a journalist, a gaggle of villagers crowded around him, and Punita, who moved to Gorgama from a nearby village, kept her face obscured by a bright sari. Asked for her thoughts, she ran inside the couple’s house and did not come out.


Later, in a brief interview, she said that her parents had found Rajesh and that she had no choice but to obey their demand to marry him.


“I am an illiterate girl,” she said. “I have nothing to say about child marriage.”