Nepal: land of contrasts. Snow-covered peaks jutting into an azure blue sky, stony grey high rises competing for space in an urban, concrete jungle and raging rivers weaving through steep ravines, giving way to lush grasslands and dense forests.
Sadly the contrasts don’t end there. Although statistics estimating the numbers of girls who enroll and stay in school differ greatly between NGOs and agencies, what they do tell us is that far greater numbers of girls continue to drop out of secondary school.
Why? The reality is complex. Nepal has one of the highest incidences of early marriage in the world, which is one explanation. Despite the recent changes to the law which raises the minimum age at marriage for girls to 18, UNICEF statistics reveal that over 50% of girls currently aged between 20 – 24 were married (or in a union) by age 15; 10% of these girls were married before 15.
Nepal’s ethnic mosaic, diverse landscape and different religious beliefs mean that cultural marriage practices vary widely. Throughout Nepal we know that Buddhists marry, on average, later than Hindus. Tibetan groups found in hill and mountainous areas marry the latest, on average around 23. In the south of the country, in the rural Terai regions closer to India, Hindu Brahmin and Chhetri groups marry the earliest, around 13 in some cases.
Patriarchal beliefs underpin the continuity of early marriage in this area and have become entrenched in the region’s social fabric. Many Hindus believe that the role of women, as laid out in religious texts, is to be a good wife and mother. The ideal age to bring punya (religious merit) to the family is before a girl starts her period, around 12 or 13.
Poverty is a significant influencing factor and education is an investment that many Nepalis cannot afford and early marriage both prevents and precludes access to education. Logic follows that as a girl will leave her parent’s house to live with her husband and soon start having children, it is pointless wasting scarce resources on her future.
Poverty is also a gendered experience in Nepal and indeed across South Asia. 2/3rds of those living below a dollar a day are women. The same girls that were taken out of school to be married.
The culture of dowry (money and gifts given away on a girl’s marriage by her family) is also a major incentive to marry girls earlier. In the Terai it is reported that the older the girl, the more her dowry. As some of Nepal’s poorest and most marginalized live in the Terai, it makes financial sense to marry a girl off younger and less sense to invest in her education.
Sadly the circle is often vicious. Not only does early marriage result in fewer years of schooling, but also that girls who have been to school are more likely to immunize their children.
Early marriage has also shown increased links with sexually transmitted diseases, maternal complications and mortality, cervical cancer and increased fertility. Girls are also at greater risk of domestic violence, particularly if their dowries were smaller and the younger the girl is, the younger she could potentially become a widow and be ostracized by other members of her community and be at risk of child abuse from members of her husband’s family.
The culture of early marriage has complicated links with health, education and economics and raises difficult questions of how development can work alongside tenacious and established religious norms.
The change in the marriage bill is a step in the right direction. But one thing is certain, for Nepal to successfully achieve both national and international development goals on maternal health, charities and development organizations continue to provide an inclusive learning environment for girls who are already married, as well as educating communities on the benefits of later marriages. There’s still a long way to go.