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Attitudes on child marriage slow to change in Nepal

Over half of women in Nepal are married by the age of 18 and a significant proportion of these are married before they are 15, though this is illegal.

A new article from IRIN highlights the ongoing problem of child marriage in Nepal. Previous estimates from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) put the number of child marriages below the age of 15 at around 10% (from 2003-2009). However, the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare in Nepal says that a third of new brides are younger than 15 years old.

In some areas, the figure could be even higher. One non-governmental organisation working in the southern Terai region told IRIN that in certain districts over half of marriages involve girls under the age of 12. The incentive for poor households with sons to choose younger girls is that their dowries are cheaper. For a very young bride, a family might pay as little as 200 dollars for the dowry. But as girls become older and particularly where they are well-qualified, bride dowries can be as much as 20,000 dollars.

Where daughters are married very young, they don’t always go to live with their new husband’s family straight away. In many cases, girls stay with their own families until the age of 16. Even so, the illegal practice encourages families to pull their daughters out of school, since parents often see little benefit in spending further money on educating girls once they have been married.

Enrolment rates of girls at school have improved significantly in Nepal. At primary school level, nearly 100 of girls are enrolled, though not all will attend the full five years of primary education. By secondary level, where fees become higher, it is common for girls to end their education. This explains the difference in literacy rates; 75% of girls aged 15 to 24 years are able to read and write, compared to 86% of boys (UNESCO 2004-2008).

The Nepalese government is concerned about the number of girls missing out on years of schooling and the ongoing perception among some parents that money is not well-spent on a girl’s education, a decision often made through poverty. However, research has shown that educated girls are better able to help their families break out of the poverty trap. To give them every chance to do that, some experts would therefore like to see a tougher stance taken on illegal marriages, saying families should be prosecuted. One worker in the field summarised the issue this way “child marriage changes the children’s life options...[and] is a total abuse of their rights.”

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