Murari Sharma: The devilish practice that refuses to go away

Kantipur, the Nepali vernacular, reported the incidence child marriage has picked up in the southern part of Lalitpur district. Even kids studying in grade five have been running away from home and getting married. According to the report, social media, peer imitation, and poverty of the family are mainly responsible for it.

This devilish phenomenon is not new in the country. Child marriage was common in urban as well as rural areas of Nepal. Even after the introduction of the legal minimum marriageable age, it continued unabated. Over time, the spread of education and social awareness reduced child marriage swiftly in urban areas, though the reduction was slow in rural areas.

However, the Maoist insurgency (1996-2005) halted or reversed the progress in the rural areas. The Maoists abducted or lured young children in general and unmarried girls in particular to join their guerilla force. Those parents who could send their children to safer urban areas did so, while others married their girl children off young.

After the insurgency was over, the well-off parents went back to their normal parenting routine. But the poor ones continue to have their children marry either for extra farm hands or for the reduction of economic pressure on the family.

Then arrived Westernization and social media affecting all, but mainly urban areas. The media — films, soap operas, explicit literature, arts and news — exposed and lured children to liberal, even promiscuous, way of life of their Western contemporaries. The impressionable children imitated their Western peers blindly.

Social media exposed children in Nepal to Western culture, which is now deemed as the gold standard, connected immature children to each other from a safe distance without their parents’ knowledge or intervention, and created peer pressure. Hence the new surge in child marriage and child pregnancy in parts of Lalitpur district.

Swami Vivekanand (1863-1902) says, “I have a strong hatred for child marriage.” After a hundred years, the problem remains entrenched despite legal restrictions, education and awareness building efforts. Nepal has made such provisions as well, but the result has been far from satisfactory.

The reason is simple. The enforcement of legal provision has been weak and patchy. There is no reporting on the cases of child marriage. When they are reported, the police do not take prompt and effective action. Politicians protect the culprits if their known supporters are drawn into the matter. Even courts are lax about the enforcement when the cases are brought to them.

Formal education has been less effective than expected to reduce child marriage for three reasons. First, textbooks have no content specifically directed against child marriage.

Second, neither government nor non-governmental organizations have made concerted and sustained efforts against child marriage. The government’s reach is limited, especially in rural areas where most child marriages take place. Non-governmental organizations are Kathmandu-centric and do not operate widely in the rural areas where the epidemic of child marriage is widespread.

Third, social pressure is often more powerful than the influence of education and awareness campaigns. For instance, the very social workers who campaign against the chhaupadi (seclusion of women during menstruation) are forced into seclusion in unhealthy conditions during their period.

So the child marriage continues. Resolving the problem requires concerted and multi-faceted efforts. For instance, the government must bring to justice those who promote or encourage child marriage. It can also make a difference by including the appropriate material in school textbooks on social evils that need to be eradicated.

Besides, the state should launch anti-child marriage campaign. It ought to be done in association with the non-governmental organizations working in the sector and involve teachers, religious leaders, and village elders, who wield influence in the area, to drive the message home.

The non-governmental organizations need to get out of the comfort of Kathmandu and a few large urban centers and reach out to rural areas.

Children are our future. Stifling them from rising to their full potentials through early marriage and other social evils is a crime that must be eliminated. The incidence reported in Kantipur is just a tip of a large iceberg. Child marriage must be tackled with the emphasis it deserves if we want a better future for our children, society and nation.


Murari Sharma: Rise of Ultranationalism

Ultranationalism has made a roaring comeback across the world after a relative obscurity following the end of World War II.

Nationalism is essential to build unity in the midst of diversity. But ultranationalism, which feeds on chauvinism and mercantilism, leads to chaos, wars, bigotry, racism, intolerance, violence, tribalism and the disintegration of states.

BR Ambedkar, who drafted the Indian constitution, said, “I want all people to be Indians first, Indian last and nothing else but Indians.” It was crucial for the integrity of India.

Ultranationalism has produced Hitler and Mussolini. It has fomented civil wars from Sudan to Ukraine and from Indonesia to Moldova.

In recent times, the tide of ultra-nationalism started to turn with India. Though the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party formed government in India in 1998, the moderate Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee blunted its edge. Therefore, the real move to the right arrived in only 2014 with the BJP leader Narendra Modi winning the election and become the prime minister of that country.

The Conservative Party, threatened by the ultraright UK Independence Party, has become UKIP-lite in the UK. Then-Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron held the referendum on the EU on 23 June. The British voters bought into the ultranationalist slogans — Take back control from Brussels, British jobs for British people, independence from Brussels —  and cast their vote to leave the regional economic bloc.

The vote has irrigated the plant that could bear the fruit of Britain’s disintegration. Scotland, which held an unsuccessful referendum for independence in 2013, as well as Northern Ireland and Wales are uncomfortable about leaving the EU. They do not want to forgo the free access to the EU single market. The Scottish Independence Party has threatened to hold another referendum, should Britain leave the single market.

The Judaic chauvinist Benjamin Netanyahu has been reelected as prime minister of Israel for the third time in 2015, at the head of the Likud Party. He publicly supports two-state solution for peace in Palestine, but consistently expands Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas to kill the idea of two-state solution and peace.

In Austria, the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party almost captured the presidency, though he failed in the final round. His agenda, among other things, was ‘Austria First’ and anti-immigrants.

The United States found in 2017 the mercurial  chauvinist and mercantilist Donald J. Trump as president on the Republican ticket. Trump’s racist, misogynist, anti-Islam, and anti-free trade posture is already riling the world. His protectionist policy is threatening to destabilize the global economy. The Republican Party that swept both houses of Congress and the majority of state governorship and state legislatures seems to tag along with Trump.

The mercurial Rodrigo Duterte, who praises the US President Trump and who used curse words against former US President Barack Obama when he was still in office, has been running the Philippines.

Even President Xi Jinping has been playing the nationalist card more than many of his predecessors in China.

Ultranationalist parties are posing threat to several other European countries as well. In France, Marine Le Pen of the National Front is seriously challenging her rivals in the French presidential elections this year. Seven other Western European countries have witnessed a surge in the popularity of conservatives or far rightist parties.

In Nepal, ultranationalism in at its climax. On one hand, minority groups have rooted for its most restrictive form — the tribal nationalism. On the other the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), the main opposition party now, has taken a nationalist posture after India interfered in the constitution writing and imposed the third, unannounced economic embargo on Nepal after the statute was promulgated in 2015 over its objection.

This catalog is enough to suggest that the world, after being largely liberal for the last four decades or so, has suddenly begun to embrace some form of the far right ideology.

How much damage it will do would depend on whether the surge of ultranationalism is a passing fad or a new trend. It is not yet clear whether the new swing to the right is a fad or the beginning of a trend. At this stage, it could be either.

It could be a temporary fad, a one-time expression of public anger towards elitist political leaders. Some view it as a fad. For instance, Andrew McCarthy, a former assistant US  attorney for the Southern District of New York,  writing in National Review, has said the Trump victory and its interpretation are just a fad.

Or it could be the beginning of a new rightward trend and the beginning of the end of liberalism and globalization. People like the US Senator Mike Lee, tend to believe that the Trump victory is the start of the trend of principled populism.

But the sustainability of the movement will depend on what happens in the coming elections in some major countries and how the ultraright parties perform in power.

The significant elections to watch would be in Germany and France and in the USA over the next two years. If the ultraright forces win the elections in Germany and France this year, and if the Tea Party Republicans make an impressive gain in the US in 2018, the pendulum might swing decisively towards narrow nationalism. Otherwise, the rightward swing could prove temporary.

More importantly, much will depend on how the ultraright leaders and governments perform in power.  If Brexit becomes a success, without major economic woes, narrow nationalism will triumph in Britain and it will have ripple effects beyond its borders.

Similarly, if the Trump administration performs in office well, it will hugely contribute to make the ultraright politics sustainable for a while. The United States, the foremost global military and economic power, still has big sway in world politics.

Otherwise, the euphoria created by the ultranationalists will crash on the hard concrete of reality, triggering a backlash against them. However, for now it appears that ultranationalism espoused by fundamentalist forces is winning the day.