The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as someone who is ‘below the age of eighteen years unless, under the law applicable...majority is attained earlier’. Marriage before the age of 18 is therefore recognised by the Convention on the Elimination on All Forms of Discrimination against Women as involving children, who do not have the ‘full maturity and capacity to act’. In many developing countries, it is common for girls to be coerced into early marriage.
In Nepal, the average age at first marriage for girls is below 18 since the country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. 10% of Nepalese girls are married before their 15th birthday and half are married before the age of 18. Work opportunities are limited for women in Nepal and girls are frequently viewed as an economic burden. Marriage is therefore seen by many families as the only option for securing the future of their daughters.
Studies have shown that early marriage cuts short a girl’s education, thus reducing the chances of breaking out of poverty, both for her and her children. Younger brides are also more at risk from domestic violence and abuse. The panel appointed by the UN secretary general to oversee a new framework to replace the millennium development goals after 2015 is therefore looking at whether child marriage should be used as one of the key indicators for equality and development.
In Nepal, a number of local non-governmental groups (NGO) are working to change attitudes towards girls and child marriage. A recent Guardian article highlights the work of one such group, called Chunauti, which campaigns against early marriage in schools and local businesses. This local NGO has persuaded factories to display anti-child marriage posters and slogans. It has also convinced a food catering company not to provide services to any child marriage ceremonies.
Groups such as Chunauti have received a recent boost with news that a large donation has been made to anti-child marriage programmes in Asia from the Kendeda fund in the US. Founded a decade ago, the Kendeda fund was originally set up to focus on environmental sustainability programmes. However, last year it created a girls’ rights arm, which has recently dispensed grants of more than 23 million dollars to the American Jewish World Service and Care USA. These orgranisations will use the money to support groups which campaign for girls rights in Nepal, as well as in India and Bangladesh.