Child marriage has risen in many countries since the world started locking down earlier this year. In fact, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) is predicting that if conditions don’t change, the pandemic will contribute to an additional 13 million marriages of children (mostly under 18) in the next decade.
The causes of child marriage are many and complex — economic, social and cultural. In Nepal, girls are often seen as a burden: raised by their parents only to be sent away to live with their husband’s family, and on top of that a girl is usually expected to carry with her a dowry for the groom’s family, which can amount to a huge amount of cash and goods, big enough to put her family in debt for many years.
In June, Samita Pradhan, team leader of the reproductive rights programme at the Centre for Agro-ecology and Development, told me during a recording of Nepal Now that more than 30 girls had been married during the lockdown in Sarlahi, a district in southern Nepal where CAED works. I had heard that child marriage was growing but had to hear a report of activity on that scale.
I followed up, with journalism student Shraddha Shree Maharjan, who did all the necessary interviews in Nepali and last weekend our article was published in Nepali Times. But, I prefer the original version, which you can read below:
30 child marriages reported in Sarlahi
Economic collapse during COVID-19 a major factor but culture remains key
Marty Logan and Shraddha Shree Maharjan
Thirty child marriages took place in one municipality in Sarlahi District during the lockdown earlier this year, according to an NGO that works in the district. While that report could not be definitively confirmed (see sidebar) it highlights again how girls are at particular risk during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Earlier this year, the non-profit VSO found in a survey that of 152 girls in four rural districts where the risk of child marriage is high, 11 had been married after the Covid-19 lockdown. In May, the NGO Room to Read told this paper it had discovered at least seven cases of child marriage during the lockdown.
In October, the provincial police office in Lumbini Province launched a two-week campaign to prevent child marriage after reporting 49 cases of child marriage in the province in the past three years.
“There were more child marriages than usual” in Sarlahi, Dailekh and Surkhet districts during the lockdown, says Samita Pradhan, Team Leader of the Women’s Reproductive Rights Programme at the Centre for Agro-ecology and Development (CAED). “I would think it’s not only economic,” she added. “I think people are following their culture — marry your daughters at an early age because they are a burden.”
“I think what is also related is children were not going to school, so they had more time and parents might have thought ‘let them go’.”— Samita Pradhan, Centre for Agro-ecology and Development
“I think what is also related is children were not going to school, so they had more time and parents might have thought ‘let them go’,” said Pradhan. “In earlier days there was a routine — children would go to school, come back home and work around the house. During lockdown that disappeared.”
Globally, the pandemic’s predicted impact on child marriage is frightening. If COVID-19 causes a one-year average delay in interventions to end child marriage, some 13 million more child marriages will occur over the next decade than otherwise expected, according to a UNFPA estimate from September.
In Nepal, following an earlier major humanitarian emergency, the 2015 earthquakes, child marriages reportedly rose, but only slightly, says a report released by UNICEF and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in June.
‘Increased economic pressure was one of the most noted earthquake-related drivers,’ says the report, Child Marriage in Humanitarian Settings in South Asia. ‘Destruction of houses and property and interruption of livelihoods from the earthquake resulted in additional financial strain. For some parents, this directly related to decisions made to marry daughters early. For some adolescents, decisions to marry revolved around the fulfilment of basic needs, such as food and shelter.’
Factors for child marriage are similar in most humanitarian situations, said Apekchya Rana Khatri, Programme Officer for Harmful Practices at the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in Nepal.
Socio-cultural norms value girls less
“I definitely agree the economic situation is one of the most important factors,” she added in an online interview. “Other factors are also important … and one very important driver that I think is connected with all these drivers is the social-cultural norms and practices, which value girls less. It starts from there.”
In Dolakha and Sindhupalchowk, the two districts studied by the report’s authors, pre-earthquake there was a trend of arranged marriages before age 18 decreasing but love marriages and elopements among older adolescents increasing. Elopements also rose post-earthquake, the report found.
Each area is a unique setting for child marriage, noted Khatri, whose programme works in five ‘hot spot’ districts for child marriage. Education, proximity to urban areas, culture and religion play important roles. “It would be very easy for us to fight child marriage if the trends were common (but) we’ve had to tailor make activities in different districts depending on these situations,” she added.
In Godaita Rural Municipality in Sarlahi, Pooja and her father Raj Kumar (not their real names) told us that she got married during the lockdown, and was 20 at the time. A local NGO disputes that. (The legal marrying age in Nepal is 20, but globally girls who marry before 18 are considered child brides.)
Raj Kumar’s reasons for arranging Pooja’s marriage echo those often heard from parents of child brides. “I have five daughters and you know how hard it is to marry daughters in our society,” he says. “I married two of my daughters only after they reached the age of 20.
“I married my third daughter (Pooja) on 8 March 2020 to a guy who is working in a foreign country because they did not ask for a dowry. I could not say no to such an offer because I already have debt to pay and if I have to take further loans for dowry in order to marry my daughters I will die of debts,” added Raj Kumar.
Anju Sah, a gender and sexual reproductive health rights activist for CAED in Sarlahi, acknowledged that “financial issues lead the families in rural areas to get their girls to get married fast but there is also certain kind of mindset of having to get (girls) married before 19.”
She added that parents were also worried about their daughters eloping because of the growing use of smartphones that girls and boys use to ‘meet’, chat and sometimes to arrange to elope (also noted in the post-earthquake report). “But the biggest reason we could draw after investigating was the economic ease,” Sah says. During lockdown “families could easily complete marriage rituals with much smaller budgets without inviting a lot of people and without letting the locals know.”
Sah says that generally child marriage in the area involves girls ages 16-18. “They are most likely illiterate (some have completed grade 9) and they often have a hard time figuring out what to do if any kind of problems come their way.”
“Young mothers are unable to birth normal babies who had no medical issues… The girls who get married late plan their babies based on their knowledge and can take care of their kids better. Young mothers would even give birth to premature babies after 6 months who weigh only 1kg. Miscarriages in young mothers were also widely seen.”
Pooja could be an exception. When we talked to her in November, she had returned from her in-laws’ house to live with her own family while she wrote the Grade 11 exams. “My husband and I don’t have plans to have kids until I finish my studies. There is no pressure from my relatives to have kids right now. I am lucky to have a husband who is understanding and supports my studies.”
Khatri says that reopening schools is a key step in eliminating the risk of child marriage during the pandemic, as is raising awareness, particularly about how to empower girls economically. Related to that is creating economic opportunities for families to lessen the impact of current economic downturn and more broadly, reduce the impact of migration. Also essential is providing services, for example in cases of sexual and gender-based violence.
Did they or didn’t they?
In July, Samita Pradhan from Centre for Agro-ecology and Development told Nepal Now podcast about 38 child marriages that had occurred in Sarlahi during the lockdown. In September we began to follow up that report.
Sarlahi staff of CAED confirmed that the marriages took place, in just one ward — Godaita-10. But they corrected the number to 30. One of the names they provided was that of Pooja (see main story). Soon after, we contacted Pooja and her father (not their real names) but they both denied that she was 18 when she got married, insisting she had been 20.
We then reached out to municipal officials in Sarlahi. One of them denied that the reported marriages had taken place, while another confirmed that “a large number” had occurred in the ward, but some time prior to the lockdown.
Via UNFPA staff on the ground in Sarlahi we consulted with an employee of another NGO working in the area. He told us that no child marriages happened in the ward during lockdown. And he also said that Pooja had not in fact been married but got engaged only.
Apekchya Rana Khatri, Programme Officer for Harmful Practices at the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in Nepal, says she isn’t surprised we had trouble confirming the report from Godaita. Her own experience from field visits is that “everyone is aware that 20 is the legal marrying age and when you ask them, all have been married at 20-21… but then we ask them for citizenship and birth registration and some of them don’t have it.”
That points to another crucial issue UNFPA is working on, she adds — strengthening registration of births/deaths and other vital information.