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Census data exposes widespread occurrences of child marriage

Census data exposes widespread occurrences of child marriage

Article 39 of the Constitution of Nepal safeguards the rights of children by completely prohibiting child marriage. The National Penal Code, 2017 has prescribed punishment for those forcing child marriage.

Section 173 of the National Penal Code has prescribed 20 as the legal age of marriage. It states that any marriage below the age of 20 would be scrapped, and a punishment of up to three years and a fine of Rs 30,000 can be handed out in this offense. However, the 2021 Census showed a rather disturbing fact that child marriages are happening all over the country.

The census report shows that a large section of the population got married before they turned 18. Tradition, poverty, dowry, lack of education, and religious and societal pressure are the factors behind growing child marriages. Data shows the rate of child marriage is different depending on geographical regions, educational status, income status of families and ethnicities. Some societies are encouraging child marriages due to societal and religious faiths, the census report shows.

According to the report, the rate of child marriage is high in the Tarai/Madhes region of the country. Twenty districts in the lowlands of Tarai have a high child marriage rate of 42.2 percent. The child marriage rate in the mountainous region is 33.1 percent. Among provinces, Madhesh (42.4 percent) has the highest rate of child marriage, while Sudupraschim (29.1 percent) has the lowest.

Dhanusha (47.5 percent) and Rautahat (47 percent) have the highest rate of child marriage in Madhesh Province. Similarly, the rate of child marriage in other districts of the province is also high—43.3 percent in Mahottari, 42.6 percent in Sarlahi, 42.1 percent in Siraha, 40.2 percent in Bara, 38.1 percent in Parsa, and 34.7 percent in Saptari. Experts say that the rate of child marriage is high in Madhesh Province due to poor economic and social development, poor educational conditions and a high birth rate.

The situation is also disturbing in Karnali Province. According to the census report, 39.9 percent of the population of the province got married before they turned 18. Salyan has the highest child marriage rate of 43.3 percent, followed by Rukum West (42.3 percent), Jajarkot (40.8 percent), Surkhet (38.7 percent), Mugu (35.9 percent), Dailekh (35.2 percent), Jumla (34.7 percent), , Humla (33.7 percent), Dolpa (32.1 percent) and Kalikot (28.1 percent).

Demography Expert and Associate Professor at Tribhuvan University, Dr Padam Prasad Khatiwada, said that the rate of child marriage is high in Karnali and Madhesh provinces because of illiteracy and lack of public awareness. “Along with illiteracy and lack of awareness, dowry is an important factor behind high child marriage rates in Madhes Province,” Dr Khatiwada said. “Because of the high rate of child marriages, maternal and infant mortality rates are also high in these provinces.”

According to Dr Khatiwada, families in Tarai districts are marrying off their daughters at a young age as the society believes the dowry amount goes higher with age.

The literacy rate is also low in Karnali and Madhes. Madhes has a literacy rate of 63.5 percent, compared to the national average of 76.2 percent.

Child marriage rates are comparatively lower in Sudurpaschim (29.1 percent) and Bagmati (29.3 percent) provinces. Kathmandu, the federal capital, has a child marriage rate of 22.8 percent.

According to the census report, 33. percent of Nepal’s population above 10 years of age, or 23.95m, are unmarried. Likewise, 59.1 percent of men and 64.3 percent of women in this age group are married. Similarly, 0.6 percent of this population is divorced, while 5 percent are widows.

According to Nepal Police, 338 cases of child marriage were registered in the last 5 years. Only 52 cases were registered in 2022/23. The highest number of cases was registered in Karnali (16) during the review year, while Gandaki (1) had the lowest.

Impacts of child marriage

Demography expert Dr Khatiwada said that child marriage affects health as well as makes socio-economic impacts. “Child marriage increases maternal and infant mortality rates. Likewise, there are other impacts like problems in reproductive health, gender-based discrimination, financial dependency and disruption in education,” he added.

Statistician and deputy chief of the National Statistics Office (NSO), Dr Hemraj Regmi, said child marriage data were collected on the basis of the age of marriage given by respondents during the 2021 census.

Advocate Sabin Shrestha said child marriage is rampant in different parts of the country due to lack of education and awareness. The law has prescribed strong punishment for those forcing children into marriage, he added.

Shrestha said the trend of elopement weddings was increasing among the young population in the country. “Youngsters are entering into relationships and eloping. There is a risk of them committing suicide if efforts are made to forcefully separate them,” Shrestha said. “Although child marriage is prohibited by law, it is difficult to discourage this trend.”