Two in five Nepalese girls marry before they turn 18 – one of the highest rates in the world, despite child marriage being illegal in the impoverished Himalayan country.
This is what almost happened to Punam Pun Magar when both her parents died and her aunt’s family felt burdened by her.
“They told me not to go to school and do household chores. After a point, they wanted to get rid of me … so they started planning my marriage to a 26-year-old man,” Magar said as tears welled up.
That’s when Big Sister Krishna Paudel rode to her rescue, snatching her from a potential life of illiteracy, poverty and ill health: common fallout of so many child marriages in Nepal. If she wasn’t rescued, she would have quit school at 14 to marry a man nearly twice her age, bear him babies and tend house.
Now, Magar is continuing her studies and hopes to become a lawyer someday.
Hundreds of Big Sisters – many of them former child brides themselves – have volunteered to counsel teenage girls like Magar, as well as their families and communities, on the impact of marrying young, using their own stories as cautionary tales.
“When I met her, I told her about child marriage – the legal consequences, the social fallout, everything. Since then, I’ve seen phenomenal change in her. That knowledge empowered her and now she’s headed towards a bright future,” said Paudel.
The legal age of marriage in Nepal is 20 for men and women alike. Yet child marriage remains deeply rooted in conservative, mainly Hindu Nepal, where many parents marry off their teenaged daughters to boost the wider family finances.
This drives a vicious cycle of ill health, malnutrition and ignorance, since a child bride is more likely to leave school and experience problems in pregnancy or birth, say campaigners.
Some also face domestic and sexual abuse.
Nepal has the third highest child marriage prevalence in South Asia, according to the United Nations.
The ‘Sisters for Sisters’ programme was introduced as part of a government drive to end child marriages in Nepal by 2030.
Activists say dropout rates rise when girls are co-opted into household chores, pushed into early marriage or held back by discrimination and deep-seated taboos over periods.
But the crime remains widespread, said Khagendra Bahadur Ruchal, an administrative official at Surkhet district.
He blamed poverty and illiteracy, as well as parents hoping to stop the taboo of unmarried sex and pregnancy.
The main enemy, however, is custom.
“It is ingrained in our society’s fabric. It is considered the norm. Even politicians and teachers are marrying their children off in some places. If they don’t practice what they preach, how can we expect any change?” he said.
Teenagers are also eloping more often, a trend campaigners attribute to better access to mobile phones and the internet. As for the cause, they said some girls are fleeing poverty or forced marriage, others chase independence and sexual freedom.
Ruchal the official said it was important to normalise live-in relationships so teenagers did not feel compelled to marry.
Nepal should also give girls some sort of incentive to stay in school so they aspire to a career of their own, said Sumnima Tuladhar of the Kathmandu-based child rights group CWIN Nepal.
“They need to be excited about education. They don’t see a future after finishing school. We have to create a society where young people have something more than marriage to look forward to,” she said. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)