Child Marriage: A Curse in the Name of Culture
By Samjhana Phuyal
From June 20-21, the United Kingdom All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health held a hearing on the issue of child marriage to present findings on the cultural tradition of marrying girls far too young to be brides, the complex barriers keeping this practice alive, and the solutions to stop child marriage. The testimony below is submitted by Samjhana Phuyal an active member of the White Ribbon Alliance in Nepal (Safe Motherhood Network Federation) and Programme Officer for Rural Women Development and Unity Centre, the first women-led NGO to be established in the far western development region of Nepal.
Child marriage has existed since time immemorial in Nepal; however, a positive trend is emerging. According to Nepal’s 2011 Demographic Health Survey, there has been a marked increase in median age at marriage among women age 20-49 over the last 15 years, from 16.4 years in 1996 to 17.8 years in 2011.
Just 25-30 years ago, it was common for children as young as six, seven, or eight to have been married through matches arranged by their parents. Personally, I was shocked when I learned that my grandmother married my grandfather at age seven, while he was only nine years of age. In this time, children were simply notified by their elders that they had been married—they had no choice but to accept each other as spouses and begin to cohabit along with the husband’s extended household.
Samjhana Phuyal (center) with her grandmother Kamala Devi Phuyal (left) and daughter Samrin Rani (right).
Though I share the story of my own grandmother, her experiences are representative of the many Nepalese women who are victims of child marriage. When my grandmother joined her new extended family, her days began as early as 3 o’clock in the morning. She was responsible for all of the grinding work (using a traditional tool known as a dhiki/jato). She was also responsible for fetching water, carrying heavy loads of cow and buffalo dung to fertilize the fields, cutting fodder, washing clothes and dishes, sweeping and mopping, cooking for the entire family, among other tasks.
Since she was married at such a young age, my grandmother was destined to suffer many hardships. At the tender age of seven she was unreasonably busy with all the household and agricultural work. To go to school and study was unimaginable for her, although her husband could go to school even after their marriage. In those days, she wanted to eat delicious food and wear pretty clothes. But she had to be satisfied with the inadequate amount of food that was provided to her. She used to feel very hungry.
When she was fourteen, she gave birth to her first child, who died within a month. The second child also died a few months after birth. After that she had several miscarriages, and between them she was confined and expected to do all the work mentioned earlier
Today, my grandmother is 82 years old. She has five children (three sons and two daughters), as well as 14 grandchildren. Last year she underwent surgery for uterine prolapsed, a condition which she had been suffering from for two or three decades. Although she was suffering, she was unable to tell anyone, including her husband, because of lack of knowledge and confidence.
According to the 2011 NDHS, girls are still marrying relatively early. Among women aged 25-49, 55% were married by age 18, with the median age at first marriage (among women age 25-49) being 17.5 years –younger than 18, the age below which people are still defined as children by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In Hindu Scriptures, virginity and abstinence from sex are highly prized. Concern over the purity of the female body in this culture restricts women’s mobility and results in seclusion. The highest form of Hindu marriage is known as “kanyadan,” which literally means “gift of a virgin.” Parents who give their daughter in kanyadan gain special merit. For example, the father opens the path to heaven for himself. Thus, a daughter must be a virgin in order to be given away in marriage, which fuels the practice of marrying girls before the onset of puberty and possible sexual activity. It is also believed that early marriage allows a girl to grow up in a safe and secure environment. My grandmother's parents believed that she had to be married before her menstrual cycle began.
In the Madhesi community of Nepal, one of the important factors perpetuating child marriage is economic. This is driven by dowry—a gift paid to the groom’s family by the bride’s family to secure the marriage agreement. Though giving and taking of dowry is illegal, it is still highly prevalent. The older and more educated a boy is, the most costly his family’s dowry demands. But in general, lower dowry demands are made for younger brides, which add to the temptation for parents to marry off their daughters while they are still young. This also means that families from particularly poor economic background are more likely to engage in child marriages.
There are also many social causes for child marriage in Nepal. In our society, it is believed that marrying off girls when they are young leads to a close affinity with the husband (who is often himself a boy) and his family. She will understand their customs and rituals as she grows up, and will therefore devote her entire life to her husband and his family. Similarly, it is commonly believed that men and boys don't like to marry girls who have already matured. Thus, it is feared that girls who are not married before they mature will be forced to live their whole lives unmarried. The concept also prevails that older girls, who are more likely to be educated and have a job, will not obey elders and community traditions. Therefore to relieve anxiety about elopement and social stigmatization, parents feel a sense of obligation to ensure that their daughters are married early.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child recommends the minimum age of marriage to be 18, yet an estimated 10 million girls are married before they reach 18 around the world. What purpose do the policies and laws serve if they are enacted – but not followed? Cultural traditions and socioeconomic realities often prevent good policies from becoming a reality.
I was almost 22 years old and a graduate when I was married and it brought about drastic changes in my personal and professional lives. It was difficult for me to become a mother at the age of 22. I was not mature enough and not mentally prepared to become a mother. But my husband supported me during my ups and downs throughout my pregnancy and he also helped me to fulfill my own dreams of obtaining higher education.
As a female activist, I wish to understand the actual number of young girls being married in Nepal. I hope that the scrutiny of child marriages in Nepal would help in the formulation of strategies to address the problem of child marriage; that it would pave the path for provisions and effective legal implementations. I am hopeful that gradually the discussions, campaigns and awareness against child marriages will change the traditional perceptions and transform lives of girls within Nepal.
I feel I owe this to my grandmother. I need to persevere and succeed in this mission for a better and new Nepal. This is essential for my daughter – who is almost four years old now. I want to facilitate and gift a better future for her and girls of her age. My love and gratitude will thus drive me against all odds to fulfill and pave a path against child marriages in Nepal.