February 4, 2013
SURKHET DISTRICT, NEPAL – Anita B.K., now 17, was 13 years old when she married a 19-year-old man in Surkhet, a district in western Nepal.
Anita B.K.’s mother, Khagisara B.K., says that the groom’s profile spellbound the family, members of the Dalit or “untouchable” caste. He was financially stable, well-educated and also Dalit. And he didn’t have vices, such as drinking alcohol.
“We didn’t like to miss the chance,” Khagisara B.K. says.
But the marriage didn’t last long. The District Child Welfare Board and a campaign against child marriage by four nongovernmental organizations filed a case with the police against the marriage that same day at the local court. The court annulled the marriage because of the bride’s age.
Child marriage has been illegal in Nepal since 2001. Nepal’s Children’s Act considers children to be younger than 16.
Two weeks after the marriage, police arrested the man who performed the ceremony, the parents and the groom. The district court fined each perpetrator 1,000 Nepalese rupees ($12) and sentenced them to prison for six months.
They each paid an additional 1,000 rupees ($12) for an early release from jail.
Khagisara B.K. says that she and her husband, who served 17 days in jail, didn’t know that their daughter’s marriage was illegal.
Brahaman, the man who performed the marriage rites, requested to keep his first name anonymous for fear of repercussions from the police. The bride’s family urged him to perform the marriage ceremony, says Brahaman, who is not an official priest but knows how to conduct weddings and sacred Hindu thread ceremonies, which qualify boys for marriage.
“So I could not spurn them,” he says.
Brahaman, who spent three days in jail, says he did not know that the marriage was illegal. If he knew, he says he would not have performed the ceremony.
Anita B.K. says that she is happy the marriage was anulled. Marriage at an early age hinders education and other social activities, she says.
While all caste communities in Surkhet practice child marriage to some degree, these marriages are most prevalent among the lower castes and indigenous communities. Many parents and priests still don’t know that child marriage is illegal. In response, local organizations formed a campaign to prevent these marriages by sponsoring educational programs and filing cases with the police. Authorities say that police investigate all cases, but reports are rare. Government officials say they still need to address the root causes for child marriage by increasing access to education and employment among lower-income families.
There were more than 1,000 child marriages reported in Surkhet from April 2008 to April 2011, according to Safer Society, one nongovernmental organization in Surkhet behind the campaign against child marriage.
Nearly 50 percent of these marriages came from the Dalit community, and more than 20 percent came from the Janajati community, which comprises Nepal’s indigenous communities.
Janajatis constitute nearly 40 percent of Nepal’s 26.5 million population, according to Nepal’s 2011 National Population and Housing Census. Dalits make up nearly 15 percent.
Wrinkles crease the dark complexion of Dharmaraj Regmi, a 59-year-old Hindu priest standing at the temple of the goddess Gangamala Deutibajai in Surkhet’s Chhinchu village. Wearing an off-white shirt, a white cloth around his waist and vermillion on his forehead, he performs puja, a Hindu act of worship, for the devotees.
Regmi has performed sacred thread ceremonies and marriages in the temple for 40 years. He says that reasons for child marriage have varied by time and social group.
During ancient times, Hindu parents believed that they would earn piety if their daughters wed before menstruation, so they married them off before age 9, Regmi says. Marriage of girls before menstruation is still common in rural areas among conservative, upper-caste Hindus.
Some parents also marry their daughters off at an early age to prevent them from engaging in premarital sexual intercourse, Regmi says. For sons, parents may prefer early marriages to make them responsible for domestic duties and to prevent them from vices such as smoking, drinking and stealing.
Underage marriage still exists in all castes in Surkhet.
But Ratna B.K., the program coordinator for Safer Society, who is not related to Anita B.K., says that child marriage is more common among Nepal’s lower castes and indigenous communities, including the Dalits and Janajatis.
Regmi says this is because Hindus of lower castes and minority groups do not require Hindu Brahmin priests to marry them, unlike marriages among upper castes. Dalits and Janajatis typically have their own priests to marry them.
He also cites financial stress. When parents can’t afford to educate their daughters, who receive less educational priority than sons, they prefer to marry their daugthers off.
Families from lower economic classes may accept marriage proposals for their daughters from higher economic classes to improve their statuses, even if the girl is a minor, Regmi says.
These groups also have a lower level of awareness about the negative ramifications of child marriage, including the consequences of early pregnancy, Regmi says.
Dr. Aruna Upreti, a private consultant gynecologist specializing in public health, says pregnancy at an early age carries higher risks of uterine prolapse, anemia, and maternal and child mortality.
Rama Bhandari, child rights officer for the District Child Welfare Board in Surkhet, attributes child marriage to a lack of awareness about its negative consequences and to low levels of education. He also cites little consciousness of the laws against it and weak legal enforcement of them.
Purushottam Kunwar, chief district officer of Surkhet, says that if the District Administration Office finds out about child marriages before they occur, police can arrest and fine the perpetrators on the day of or after the marriage, even if there is no evidence.
But most parents aren’t aware of the laws against child marriage, says District Attorney Pareshwor Dhungana. They find out only when the district police files a case against them.
Indraraj Poudel, a priest in Surkhet, says that he conducted more than 100 child marriages before he realized they were illegal. He says that Brahaman’s arrest in 2008 discouraged priests in Surkhet from performing child marriage ceremonies.
“Without knowing about the crime, I have conducted marriage of many minor children,” Poudel says. “Many children suffered afterwards, and I, therefore, promised not [to] conduct such marriages.”
But others who don’t know it’s illegal continue to conduct such marriages, he says.
About five underage couples request to be married every month at the temple, Regmi says.
“Child marriage is prohibited,” he says. “Nonetheless, the parents come to us to perform secretly. But we refuse.”
When priests refuse, parents often go to priests unaware of the law, some traveling as far as the neighboring district of Banke.
Krishna Prasad Sharma, 40, waited for three hours to consult Regmi at the crowded temple about his 16-year-old son’s birth chart to select the best date for his wedding.
“I want to get my son married and bring a daughter-in-law to my house,” Sharma says to Regmi. “Please find the earliest auspicious date.”
Regmi, looking tired, sits on the outer steps of the temple and consults the chart. But when he realizes the bride is 15 and the groom is 16, Regmi tells the father that because they are minors, it is illegal for him to perform the marriage.
The legality doesn’t deter Sharma, though.
“If you do not want to conduct the ceremony, I will go to another priest,” he tells Regmi before leaving angrily.
Regmi says he oversaw more than 500 marriages of children ages 12 to 16 before he learned from the campaign against child marriage in 2008 that child marriage was illegal. He hasn’t performed any child marriages since and always double-checks the ages of potential brides and grooms.
“With the campaign in full swing in the district against early marriage, I learned about the bad effects of it,” Regmi says. “I heard many times over the radio that such marriages were social crimes. After this, 30 priests, including myself, of the district had an interaction session against early marriage.”
Four nongovernmental organizations launched the campaign against child marriage in 2008 in Surkhet. Save the Children, an international organization, has teamed up with local orgranizations Safer Society, Samaj Jagaran Kendra and Dalit Sewa Sangh to eliminate child marriage from Surkhet by 2015.
The campaign created Child Protection Committees in 22 of Surkhet’s 50 villages to prevent child marriage. Committee members include representatives from local nongovernmental organizations, teachers, priests, journalists and social activists.
The campaign hosts awareness programs, files cases with police against child marriage, airs radio spots, organizes local meetings and stages street dramas about the consequences of child marriage. Government agencies and nongovernmental organizations in the district are cooperating with the campaign, Ratna B.K. says.
Bhandari of the Surkhet District Child Welfare Board says that the campaign is the first of its kind in Nepal. Between 2008 and 2011, it stopped 18 child marriages in Surkhet by persuading parents and priests to stop them or by filing a legal case with the police, as it did with Anita B.K.’s marriage.
The campaign has held meetings with more than 30 priests, who promised to combat child marriage, Ratna B.K. says.
Poudel recommends a conference to educate all priests in the district on the negative impacts of child marriage.
“It is possible to stop child marriage through the priests alone,” Poudel says.
Still, Regmi says he reported three child marriages to the Surkhet District Police Office from 2008 to 2012, but police took no action.
Kunwar says that if his office receives any child marriage cases, local police carry out an investigation.
“However, there are very few people who come with such request,” he says.
Even though child marriages take place in the district, the DA’s office didn’t receive any complaints in 2011, Dhungana says. Local police registered just two cases during 2012 based off the complaints received.
Villagers tend to settle any disputes about child marriage locally to avoid news of child marriage spreading outside the village, Dhungana says.
Anita B.K. urges authorities to intervene to prevent child marriages before they happen. She says the repercussions of her annulled child marriage have made her life difficult.
Her mother says she doubts that anyone will marry her daughter after hearing about her first marriage.
In Nepalese society, there is a stigma attached to second marriages for women, even if the first marriage was annulled on legal grounds, Bhandari says. Men, on the other hand, don’t face this stigma.
Anita B.K. also says that child marriage victims need more support.
“Back then, I needed support,” she says, with tears rolling down her face. “But nobody supported me. The organizations that stopped my marriage to save my future didn’t look after me. I am struggling on my own.”
If she had married her former husband, his family would have taken care of her financially, she says. Now, she struggles socially and financially to continue her education and to support herself and her mother.
Organizations aren’t responsible for supporting the girls after intervening in child marriages, and the government also does not have a specific policy to support such victims, Ratna B.K. says.
Kunwar says that nongovernmental organizations focus on awareness programs instead of skill development. To eradicate child marriage, every child should have access to education, and low-income families need opportunities for employment, skill development and income generation.
He says the government plans to launch skill-development programs for the victims in coordination with the organizations driving the campaign.