A few months back, a woman jumped into the Karnali river along with her four children. Apparently, she had gotten married as a teenager, and was often abused by her husband and in-laws. The 25-year-old decided to end her life, and that of her children too, as she saw no way out of her plight. No one survived.
This, Nirjana Bhatta, national coordinator at Girls Not Brides-Nepal, a network of organizations working against child marriage, says the tragedy was an outcome of early marriage. “Child marriage is wrong and its consequences can be gruesome,” she says. The trouble mostly begins with financial stress that only escalates as time goes on. The pressure of providing for the family falls on the boy while the girl is responsible for handling the entire household and is also forced to meet the expectations of her in-laws. “Majority of them discontinue their education which doesn’t make them eligible for a proper job,” she adds. The matter gets worse when the wife is pregnant which, in most cases, happens within one year of marriage.
Many girls are abandoned by their husbands once they bear a child. Bhatta says that the major reason behind this is because the husbands are unable to handle the financial responsibility of raising a family. “With no one to back these girls up, they are prone to domestic violence, especially from their in-laws, or they get kicked out of the house,” she says. Hira Singh Thapa, founder of Social Service Center (SOSEC) Nepal, a Dailekh-based non-governmental organization, says there are nearly 70-80 cases in Karnali alone where girls have been single-handedly raising their children.
There are a few marriages where the couple decide to continue their education and that could potentially lead to a better life. But, according to Thapa, the girls are generally unable to continue their education. “Our society is largely patriarchal and families expect their daughters-in-law to look after everything within the household,” he says. The work-load eventually leads them to quit their studies. Despite that, he mentions, several girls work hard to at least pay for their husband’s education. “But, in turn, their husbands look for a ‘more educated’ wife, have extra-marital affairs, and I have even seen a few cases of polygamy,” he adds. In some cases, the husbands go abroad for work, stop sending money back home, and never return.
This has forced many girls towards child labor. Thapa recalls an incident from a year back when he was visiting Jajarkot in Karnali Province. He met 15 girls below the age of 18 who were daily wage earners. When inquired, he says, all 15 were mothers working to provide for their children after their husbands disappeared or married someone else.
There are also husbands who take care of the family financially but then they are abusive. “It’s the influence of our patriarchal society that gives them the audacity to do whatever they want as long as they make money for the family,” says Bhatta. But the last thing these girls want is a divorce. Bhatta mentions that since most of these girls lack education, or a source of stable income, they are dependent on their husbands. “I know many girls who say they endure abuse only to ensure they have a roof over their heads,” she adds.
The situation is even worse for couples whose family don’t accept their marriage, which mostly happens when the marriage is intercaste. “With no place to live, many couples are homeless,” says Kamala Bist, Baitadi district coordinator for Yuwalaya, an organization that works for child rights. In case the marriage does get accepted, there is a lingering conflict of caste and religion which eventually leads to domestic violence.
A 23-year-old bartender from Kathmandu, who wants to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, remembers an incident that happened with his friend almost two years back. She, a high-school student, eloped with a boy from a different religion. Although the families were reluctant to accept their marriage at first, they were later convinced. “Her husband was irresponsible, and the in-laws were abusive,” he says. When she reached out to her parents, both of them blamed her for getting married without their permission. She died by suicide.
The abuse and pressure of being a young bride/mother has led many girls to develop several mental health problems. Tara Kumari Acharya, a psychosocial counselor for Aawaaj (an organization actively working against child marriage), who has been working in Dailekh in Karnali Province for the past two years, says that around 400-500 people, mostly girls, in her area have been suffering from chronic depression or other psychological issues. “Most of the cases are the outcome of domestic violence and financial stress post early marriage,” she says. She further mentions that this year three girls between the age of 13-17 died by suicide because of the same reason.
The repercussions are also seen on the offspring. “They grow up in an environment where either their mother is being abused, or their parents often quarrel, leading them to suffer from mental health issues at a young age,” says Acharya. These children, she adds, fall under the same cycle of early marriage as a way of getting out of their disturbing households.
She further mentions that there are incidents where both the parents abandon the newborns. Ten years ago in Dailekh, a couple, both 18, abandoned their two-months-old daughter. The mother left because she didn’t have a good relationship with her husband and the father to attain sainthood. Although her father returned eight years later, he has a health condition. He was unable to take care of his daughter. The child, now 12-year-old, studies in the fifth grade and is being assisted by Aawaaj.
Then there is also the problem of not being able to get a birth certificate since the parents can’t legally get a marriage certificate before the age of 20. Although, according to the law, parents aren’t required to submit a marriage certificate in order to receive a birth certificate for their children, Gyanendra Shrestha from National Child Rights Commission (NCRC), mentions that most wards are unaware of that. Worse, many early mothers also don’t have citizenship to begin with. “Many children have been rendered stateless because of this issue,” he adds.
The consequences of child marriage is neverending. Many brides are at risk of having health complications from early pregnancies, are forced to live as single mothers for the rest of their lives, or even worse, get married to much older men with the hopes of getting financial and emotional support. “It doesn’t just impact the boy and the girl who get into an early marriage but every other family member, including their children,” says Bhatta.