Photo Credit: Her Turn
Photo Credit: Her Turn

By: Kathryn Sall, Her Turn Intern

Renuka Thapa came to Nani Maya Gurung’s office crestfallen. Between her tears, broken sentences filled the room. For weeks she had fought with her parents. They were forcing her to get married, but at 18 years old, she wasn’t ready. She had hopes and dreams of a life in Kathmandu – working, earning an income, living on her own. About to complete grade 12, she wanted to finish school and use her education. They wouldn’t listen. Marriage was the appropriate and most secure next step for their daughter, and they felt it their right and duty to make the decision for her. Why waste time finishing school when they had a stable future lined up for her? Renuka disagreed. Thankfully she went to Nani, and thankfully Nani had observed a Her Turn workshop.

Nani sits with her shoulders slightly rounded, eyes fixated on the Nepali district map behind me. Her long black plait rests on her back and her weathered, tawny hands nervously click a pen on the desk in front of her. She speaks with caution, answering our questions with brevity and somber eyes. I strain for her eye contact, but she only gives fleeting glances to Wongmu, the Her Turn Field Coordinator. A teacher at Shree Devi Secondary School, Nani observed the Her Turn girls’ education and empowerment workshop three months ago. We came to Nani’s village, Petku, to conduct interviews with the workshop’s participants, their parents, and their teachers. We hoped to better understand Her Turn’s impact on the community.

With time, Wongmu softens Nani. In answering our questions, the stolid face begins to show glimmers of a grin. She gushes about the changes in the girls – their increased confidence, ability to communicate and stand up for themselves, willingness to take risks. We relish in the good news. The conversation then turns to heavier parts of the curriculum, the often unspoken realities that individuals in her village face – domestic violence, sexual abuse, human trafficking, and child marriage. As Wongmu broaches child marriage, Nani’s staidness returns. Child marriage plagues the village, she tells us. And the consequences are dire.

In fact, child marriage plagues all of Nepal.

An estimated 41% of girls younger than 18 are married off by their parents. In more than one third of new marriages in Nepal, the girl is younger than 15. Often forced into the marriages because of lower dowries, the illusion of protection from the new husband, or a lessened financial burden, the young brides suffer physically, psychologically, and emotionally.

Once married, girls are forced into sexual activity and become pregnant before their bodies fully mature. Young mothers’ pregnancies often lead to debilitating physical ailments like uterine prolapse – a serious and painful condition in which the tendons and ligaments surrounding the uterus can no longer hold it, and it slides into the vaginal area. These girls experience tremendous pain during sexual intercourse, vaginal bleeding, urinary incontinence, and difficulty performing the day to day manual labor expected of them. Even a task as seemingly simple as lifting a baby can become near impossible, not to mention cooking, cleaning, child care, and agricultural work. Women who suffer uterine prolapse are deemed “impure” by their husbands. They are more likely to suffer from marital rape and domestic abuse.

Obstetric fistula, a condition in which the mother’s pelvis is too small for the baby’s shoulders or head during labor, is also common in child pregnancy. Caesarian sections have all but eliminated obstetric fistula in countries with the medical access. Protracted labor causes fistula, tearing of the vaginal wall. While difficult to track in rural areas, reports show occurrences in 88% of girls’ pregnancies between the ages of 10 and 14. And it comes with the same social stigma as uterine prolapse. Thus girls fear consequences and neglect to seek treatment. The younger a mother, the more likely she is to experience these conditions. The prevalence of obstetric fistula and uterine prolapse are difficult to estimate precisely because of the stigma attached to these conditions.

Early pregnancy is the single leading cause of death in girls 15 to 19 years old in low income countries.

The ramifications of child marriage extend beyond pregnancy related trauma. The younger the girl, the more likely she is to be abused. Marriage often means the end of a girl’s education, limiting her agency and ability to earn income. Human traffickers often marry young girls, promising families a safe and secure future, only to sell them into the sex trade.

Despite its widespread acceptability and prevalence, child marriage is illegal in Nepal.

With parental consent, Nepali law states that a girl must be 18 years old to marry. Without parental consent, she must be 20. Though seldom enforced, these laws may better the lives of Nepali young women.

Armed with this knowledge from the Her Turn workshop, Nani met with Renuka’s parents. She explained that though frequently ignored or unknown, Nepali law prohibits child marriage. They could not force marriage onto their unwilling daughter. The ability to support herself by if imaging her education would give Renuka security and independence. Why quit school now when their daughter was so close to finishing? After days of convincing, they finally conceded. Renuka now lives and works in Kathmandu. She is finishing school and working part time in a corporate office.

The fight against child marriage is not straightforward or easy. The issue is tangled with poverty, dowries, misogyny, fixed gender roles, and lack of education. Nepal needs policy enforcement with heavy consequences on a nationwide scale as well as localized intervention programs. But mostly, communities and individuals need education. With increased awareness of the realities of child marriage, perhaps girls’ school enrollment and retention rates will improve. And through education comes a world of possibilities. Hopefully Renuka’s choice to delay marriage does exactly that.

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