While most boys left the village for work after marriage, girls stayed back in the village, but sadly not in schools
It was the end of a long day. Our team had just completed taking a whole lot of interviews to assess the situation of girl children in Bajura district. We were making our way downhill when a girl passed by, followed by a small child. Something about her struck me, the red vermillion mark on her forehead, and the beads around her neck that singled her out as married. I asked her, “Are you married? Is that your child?” Seeming embarrassed, she ran away with the child following her. Later, I found out that it was her second child. And she looked no more than 15, a mere child herself.
In most of rural Nepal, child marriage is one of the major reasons for girl children dropping out of school. It was no different in the far-west hills. During the situation analysis we conducted to identify barriers preventing girls from going to school, having a healthy and safe adolescent life and being protected, I had the opportunity to visit four districts—Saptari in the east, Kapilvastu in the west, and Bajura and Achham in the far-west. In all the districts, our common finding was that high prevalence of child marriage proved detrimental to children’s education. While most boys left the village for work after marriage, girls stayed back in the village—but sadly not in schools.
In recent times, and specially as we have just celebrated the International Day of the Girl Child, there has been heightened focus and concern on child marriage. All of us know that incidences of child marriage are really high, but the frequency with which they are now reported make it seem even more dangerously high. It is bad enough when parents blinded by culture and traditions force their children into tying the knots.
Can we even stop it? From the perspectives of those “foolishly in love” young couples, can we prevent young hearts from beating? Can we keep them away from their crushes and teenage affections? This might sound dramatic, but these were my thoughts after our encounter with the young bride. The main question that came to me, again and again, was: we have been trying so hard to prevent child marriage but it still goes on. Is our battle lost after the marriage, or can we still make a difference?
There were multiple ideas connected to my question. In a child marriage, both the boy and girl (or their parents) might be involved with the decision, and will need to bear consequences of their actions. But girls always seem to face multiple disadvantages due to gender. In my observation, boys are likely to migrate and work in other cities and countries to make money and graduate into the bread-winner of the family, as expected by their family and society. On the other hand, girls face limitations after marriage in terms of movement, social interactions and expression. After children come along, it is difficult for them to find any time to pay attention to personal education, health and wellbeing.
So I go back to my question: Can we still make a difference after the marriage has happened despite the best efforts to stop it? I say YES! Most programs, either by the government or non-government organizations, are focused on prevention, which is important. We may still face challenges in preventing child marriage, but we can minimize the risks or ripple effects of child marriage, especially in the lives of young girls.
The average child marriage takes place between the ages of 13-16 years. In most cases after marriage, we see the husband leaving the village in search of work. However, the brides still stay back in the village, still within our programs, still within our reach. We must reach out to these young brides as quickly and efficiently as possible to ensure that their lives are not further affected by the negative results of child marriage. After all, life is too long to be given up just at the age of 15.
In our society, there is a tendency to think that life starts and ends at marriage. We hear people say, especially to girls, “Why study, now that you are married? Just learn household chores and have babies.” If a girl wants to work, she is told, “Just stay home, your husband earns enough.” Even programs that work to prevent child marriage are not interested to work with girls once they get married. Girls’ education and personal development rarely receives its due attention in our society. If only we could change this, we could offer married girls and women many more opportunities and prevent health hazards that child marriage entails.
One of those health hazards and a threat to child development is teenage pregnancy. As soon as a couple is married, there is an expectation that a child will follow. Talking about sexual and reproductive health is not done in our society. Hence, in many cases, girls don’t even know what happens after marriage and are faced with unexpected and unplanned teenage pregnancy, which puts their and their newborns’ life in danger. In addition, the burden of household chores and child rearing mean that girls have no time to even think of enhancing life skills and opportunities.
By offering teenagers means to prevent teenage pregnancy, retaining children in schools and continuing their education, we can still make a difference in their lives. Most girls leave school as they get teased for being married.
Girls also face unwanted pregnancy because they are unaware of safe and protected sex.
It is a common scenario where a girl accepts the situation as her fate and gives up on improving her life. If girls are educated and skilled, they are capable of taking better decisions and make right that one wrong decision of child marriage.
Marriage is just the first step. This is the beginning of many more important life-changing decisions. It is time that we strengthen programs and work with people who help our teenagers realize this fact and apply it in their lives, marriage or no marriage.