Published in The Kathmandu Post on October 26th 2010.
The parliament has recently amended the law for the marriageable age of both males and females to 20.
Officials hope this move will improve maternal health and reduce teenage pregnancies, as well as encourage women to continue their education and gain employment.
In theory, this is great news and a sign that the government recognises the negative consequences that early childbearing has on so many Nepali women and girls.
Nepal was recently honoured at the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) review for significantly reducing maternal mortality rates (MMR), which have decreased from 850 per 100,000 live births in 1990 to an estimated 229 in 2010. The efforts of the Ministry of Health’s Safe Motherhood Programme which provides monetary incentives for women giving birth in a hospital as well as joint partnerships between NGOs and the government should be applauded in reducing these rates.
However, this statistic masks regional and caste disparities and independent research disagrees with these findings. John Hopkins University, for example, found a MMR of between 511 and 529 deaths in Sarlhari district. Furthermore despite the overall reduction, the Government of Nepal MDG Progress Report reveals 71 percent of births in Nepal still take place without a skilled birth attendant, one of the world’s worst records.
The parliament is right to be concerned with improving maternal health. And it is understandable why it believes raising the legal age of marriage will assist with this, as the vast majority of pregnancies occur within marriage.
However, at present, the reality is that many girls in Nepal are already married before the current legal age: the Population Council reveals that 51 percent of girls aged 20-24 were already married by 18. And UNICEF reported similar findings in 2005, with 40 percent of girls aged 15-19 currently in a union.
But raising the legal age of marriage will make little difference when you consider that girls are already marrying well below the legal age. Despite the government’s interest in maternal health, the issue of early marriage or child marriage is rarely discussed.
Arguably, early marriage perpetuates chronic poverty, denies girls educational opportunities, and increases the risk of HIV/AIDS and maternal mortality, as well as causing reproductive health problems.
The relationship between early marriage, education and health is complex. Demographic and health survey data consistently reveals that secondary school attendance strongly negates the risk of marriage during adolescence and where a greater number of girls attend secondary school, fewer early marriages occur.
Furthermore girls who are educated are more likely to immunise their children and seek medical treatment as well as have greater awareness about contraceptive use. The lack of education caused by early marriages undermines child development.
Arguably, the government should be pursuing programmes to encourage the education of already married girls and focusing on education as a strategy to offset marriage timing.
Early marriages are also a cause of increased fertility. DHS data from 2003 identifies a continuous relationship where on average, girls who marry before 15 have their first birth between then and 17, three years less than girls whose marriages are delayed to between 15 and 20.
This increased fertility relates to greater maternal mortality with girls aged between 15 and 19 twice as likely to die during childbirth as women over twenty.
In Nepal, despite the 1996 Reproductive Health Strategy, in 2008 the World Bank reported that high fertility rates (4.1 children per woman) contributed to 18.9 percent of maternal deaths that occurred among adolescents.
According to the 2001 Census, over 80 percent of Nepal’s population identify themselves as Hindu. Arguably socio-cultural indicators such as religion and ethnicity have a bearing upon marriage timing. Academic studies have repeatedly demonstrated the differences betwixt and between ethnic groups with many studies reinforcing the argument that Indo-Aryan groups marry earlier than Tibetan groups.
Differences are also apparent on a regional basis with 1991 Census data revealing that in Bara, Kapilvastu and Parsa districts girls marry at 15 years while girls in Mustang marry around 23. Data from the southern Tarai reveal Brahminical-influenced attitudes, with adults thinking that girls should be married by their twelfth birthday in line with the Hindu belief that girls should be married before menarche. Concerns of not finding a suitable groom and the fact that a girl’s dowry escalates as she grows older are also motivational factors for early marriages recorded in the Tarai.
Furthermore, it is widely acknowledged that poverty influences marriage timing. 2006 DHS data reveals significant wealth differences in terms of lower and higher ‘caste’ groups. For example, Dalit girls are twice as likely as their Newar counterparts to be uneducated and illiterate. These differences in wealth also influence marriage timing as deprivation often necessitates households to consider their short term needs over longer, more sustainable alternatives. In a context of limited resources, early marriage is seen as a practical solution, resulting in one less mouth to feed. Due to a Hindu-influenced culture of patrilieneal inheritance, gender disparities in access to social capital are prominent in Nepal, rendering poverty a predominantly gendered experience.
Statistics consistently reveal this dismal reality where women and girls represent the majority of those living in poverty. In 2001 the UN reported that two thirds of those living under a dollar a day are from South Asia where 60 percent of girls under 19 are married.
The reality is more complex than Parliament would have us believe. Simply raising the marriage age will not be enough to reduce the rate of early marriage and subsequently improve maternal health. One only has to glance at current statistics of early marriage in Nepal and see the great disparities across ethnic groups and examine the poverty context, or cultural traditions that influence marriage timing to see why and how the current legal age of marriage is being ignored.
Nepal has an incredibly rich and varied social fabric. This seems to have bypassed the government’s attention. Rather than a simple top-down approach, the government should be promoting bottom-up approaches in trying to change the status of women in the districts identified as being more susceptible to early marriages and pushing harder for more marriages to be registered.
A more holistic approach to the complexities of maternal health, taking the realities of early marriage into account, is definitely required.
(Delaney completed her MSc from the University of Manchester and wrote her dissertation on early marriage in Nepal).