Despite the average age of brides increasing in Nepal, child marriage is still prevalent. Whilst many campaigns have focused on the sexual health threats and the need to keep girls in school, new research from the Institute of Development Studies highlights the complex financial dependencies that are at play and asks should child marriages be considered a form of modern slavery?
Child bride health risks
The negative effects of child marriage on the sexual and reproductive health rights of girls are well-documented—including higher risks of maternal mortality for adolescent mothers. “Last year a 13-year-old girl bride from a nearby village was pregnant,” says an educational counsellor we spoke with in the Terai region of south-eastern Nepal. “She was living with her new in-laws, and as she did not know them and had been forced to marry, she did not dare to talk to them when she started bleeding during her pregnancy. She hid it from them until the bleeding was so bad that they found out. They took her to the hospital but she died there.
The benefits of education versus benefits of marriage
Health threats like these are one of the reasons why gender and health activists focus on keeping girls in school. Girls’ education is highly valued in the Siraha and Saptari districts of the Terai. Local NGOs, parents, educators and politicians agree that girls are better off in school than out of it. Yet the value of an education doesn’t outweigh the other factors that cause girls to be taken out of school. Although the average age of marriage has increased, gendered social norms and practices around marriage in Nepal remain sticky. Dowries are common in the communities where we work on agricultural bonded labour – also known as “Harwa-Charwa. Parents give a smaller dowry when a girl marries at a young age, which is preferable for most households in bonded labour who are from “Dalit” castes, traditionally considered “untouchables”, and surviving on very little financially.
New research in the region found that in the 20 marriages last year in one of the villages, 15 were child marriages; 12 of the children were girls. All of these girls were aged 15-16 years old. The boys were around 17-18. A closer analysis showed that all of these girls had been taken out of school before they finished grade 10 (the equivalent of Year 11 in the UK). One reason is that in these patrilocal communities, parents with limited resources prioritise their sons’ education over their daughters’. “Investment in a daughter’s education is seen as a waste, as she is leaving the house,” says one educational professional.
Other reasons for cutting a girl’s education short include the desire to reduce household expenses by settling her with another family and preventing her from eloping with someone, which would bring shame to the family. An educated girl is seen as a high risk, as she might demand to be married to somebody with an equal educational level. That could drive up the dowry price and therefore possibly make her unmarriageable. Keeping girls in school reduces the bargaining power of her parents and means that the family that gets the older bride misses some valuable years of female work.
Child marriage as a form of modern slavery
Increasingly, slavery eradication activists argue that child marriages should be considered a form of modern slavery when certain conditions apply. These include a lack of consent to enter the marriage, an inability to leave safely, subjection to physical threats and emotional control, and exploitation for sexual or labour purposes. Young children are unlikely to give informed consent, and may be pressured by parents or other family members to enter marriage. They are less able to flee. Although not all marriages between minors that involve dowries or bride prices should be seen as modern slavery, marriage negotiations that focus on financial transactions between families have a higher risk of commodifying children and putting them in servile positions.
“My daughter left at 12. She ran away with a boy who was very poorly educated but talked her into it when he was at a party in our village. I could not stop her. She’s now 15 and has two kids. Last time she was here to visit me both kids had pneumonia,” says a woman in one of our action research groups.
The exploitation of women and girls for their labour, within families and by landlords, needs to be understood in a wider context. We must take into account unpaid care work, a gender wage gap, an excess of unskilled labour and a historical feudal system of bonded labour in the agricultural sector.
Migration of men out of the village
In one village researchers were told that the zamindar, the local landlords, only employ women. “Women are cheap. We are paid in kind and a woman received 8 kg of rice while a man doing the same receives 14 kg,” explains a female member of a credit and savings group. Migration of men is also an important factor. Historically, most migration was rural to urban within the country’s borders, with some people going to neighbouring India and Tibet. With globalisation, however, workers have migrated farther afield, in particular to the Gulf States and Malaysia. The eastern Terai region now has the second-highest emigration rate in Nepal.
The men who are still in the village are left unemployed and idle. Some have taken to drinking. They seem to accept that the women work. Some are taking on household chores, but enthusiasm is lacking. “I can play with the children, and I can cook a few things. I can do household work as long as people do not see me doing it. It is shameful if anyone can see me doing chores,” says one
There is clearly no lack of work. Rather, there is a lack of work that provides workers with enough income to meet their basic needs, such as food, housing, and clothing. Members of one women’s group argue that if they could work more – even though their wages are lower than men’s – they would make more money, the children would go to school and there would be no child marriages anymore. But with the lack of local income-generating opportunities, dowry system and other gendered practices still going strong, it is hard to imagine that their daughters will be able to choose education over marriage anytime soon.
Bishnu Prasad Sharma is a researcher at Action Aid Nepal.