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.

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