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From Poverty To Matrimony: Early Marriage In Rural Nepal

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Twenty-year-old Sanani Balami stood in ankle-deep mud, pulled up stalks of rice and lobbed them on to dryer ground. Sanani and her family are generating no significant income right now; they work in subsistence farming and face a large amount of debt for her husband's travel and hospital bills.

Farming and household work are not new to Sanani, who has been helping to support her family since she stopped going to school at age 12, and her in-laws since she was married at age 14.

We interviewed Sanani in her home on a steep hillside in Kagati village, about 20 kilometers west of Kathmandu. She lives with her in-laws, in a mud hut with a corrugated metal roof and a "barn" attached on the side. The room we sat in was sparsely accommodated. There were no chairs or tables, no furniture apart from an armoire across the room. We sat on planks of wood, near the door, so as to have some light. Her mother-in-law switched between preparing wheat beer and crushing chili peppers in a big mortar and pestle. Sanani's two children crawled into her lap.

Early marriage is common in Nepal. The legal age for marriage is 20, but the median age at first marriage (according to the 2006 Demographic and Health Survey) is 17.2 for women aged 20-49. In 2006, the Nepali government reported that 60 percent of women in this age group were married by the age of 18.

According to UNICEF's Innocenti Research Center, poverty is a key factor driving the practice of child marriage. In a 2001 report, researchers explain that marriage is seen as a "strategy for economic survival;" a "way to protect girls and to provide some stability in situations where societies are under extreme pressure."

Sanani has long dark hair, pulled back into a messy ponytail. She was wearing a red blouse and skirt, and around her neck, hung red and green glass beads. She smiled a lot. She kept checking her watch during the interview, aware of the work to be finished before nightfall.

We noted during other interviews that people were reluctant to be away from their work. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in South Asia and ranks 138 out of 169 on UNDP's human development index. For the 2009 fiscal year, the World Bank reports that GDP per capita in Nepal was a low $470. Taking time to talk to reporters means taking time away from work, and time is money.

From Poverty to Marriage

Sanani married Shyam Balami at age 14. Shyam was 17 at the time. These ages are estimates; neither Sanani, her husband nor her mother-in-law are sure of their ages.

It is common for parents to arrange marriages in Nepal. One father from the Thami ethnic group explained that it is a parent's responsibility to make sure his children are secure, via a suitable marriage. He disapproved of the idea that a young girl would leave home with a man of her own choosing. His disapproval stemmed not from some pernicious desire to see a young woman unhappy, but rather from the break with one's culture and the risk of premarital sex or marrying into the wrong caste. He himself has a daughter-in-law whom he did not choose. While he displayed affection for her and the child she bore, he said that it is the tradition that a parent should choose a suitable wife for his son.

When Sanani's parents first spoke to her of marriage, she had been out of school for two years, busy with cooking for the family, working in the fields and looking after her younger siblings. Her parents could not afford to send all six of their children to school. As she was the eldest, and a girl, she was asked to drop out to help support the family. Sanani admits that she likes school. However, she felt it was her responsibility to take care of the household.

"How could I go to school when there was so much work?" she asked.

UNICEF reports that in impoverished areas, such as Nepal, "a young girl may be regarded as an economic burden and her marriage...is a familial survival strategy." We learned through interviews that girls in Nepal are seen as a liability because they have fewer economic opportunities and will inevitably end up contributing to another family. Her family receives no monetary returns, despite having provided for a girl's basic and education needs. So the most a daughter can offer is domestic help or an advantageous marriage.

Such was the case for Sanani. Her marriage helped both her family and her in-laws. When Shyam was a young man, he was told that he needed to take a wife to provide much needed help at home and in the fields. Along with domestic help, Sanani brought offerings of an armoire and a large water vessel to her in-laws -- her dowry, as is customary in Nepal.

Dangers of early marriage

Despite the economic benefits some families receive through marriage, early marriage can have serious health consequences for young girls. In Nepal, there is pressure for new wives to demonstrate their fertility and to begin bearing children as soon as possible. But research from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) shows that girls aged 15-19 are twice as likely as women aged 20-24 to die during pregnancy.

One of the common health risks of early pregnancy is fistula. Because young women are not physically developed enough to deliver a child, they often face prolonged labor. During labor, the baby exerts pressure against soft tissues in the mother's pelvis. This can cause some tissues to die, leaving a hole or a fistula. Depending on the location of the hole, the woman may experience involuntary urination or defecation, which will affect her quality of life, unless she can afford medical care.

Fistula exists in Nepal, but a more common problem seems to be uterine prolapse, which is when the uterus descends through the genitals. UNFPA reports 600,000 women in Nepal are affected by uterine prolapse. Among the causes of this condition are applying pressure during delivery, strenuous manual labor after childbirth, and giving birth and a young age. Some effects of uterine prolapse include pain during urination, difficulties during sexual intercourse and social stigmatization.

Will the practice continue?

When Sanani's parents told her she was to be married, she was happy, although she didn't know what marriage was; "I thought it was a sport or a game to play."

Despite not knowing how babies were made, Sanani became pregnant shortly after marrying, and delivered a son at age 16. Fortunately for Sanani, she delivered both her children without problems.

Sanani's mother-in-law, Suntali Balami, explained that children are a gift from the gods. Many families will keep having children until a boy is born. In Hinduism, boys perform the last rites, meaning that boys ensure a deceased parent's entrance into heaven. This belief increases, again, a boy's value.

We asked both women when they planned to arrange a marriage for Sanani's daughter, a shy two-year-old who clung to her mother throughout the interview. Both answered that she must finish school before she can be married.

"I don't want her to face what I did. When I was to be married, I didn't know what was going on or why I had to leave my family," said Sanani.

Suntali said that even if a boy comes asking for her hand, she would forbid the marriage until her granddaughter has received her education. Suntali answered our questions quickly, not wanting to waste time with reporters when they could be working in the rice paddies.

Sanani and her in laws were very concerned about their finances. Last year the family raised 150,000 Nepali rupees (approximately $2,100) to send Sanani's husband to Malaysia for work. This is quite common in Nepal: the 2006 Demographic and Health Survey reports that 37 percent of households in Nepal had at least one household member travel within the last year for work and that men are three times as likely to migrate as women. Most migrant workers travel to India, Malaysia and the wealthy Gulf countries. Shyam Balami was employed in Malaysia as a painter. After only four months, he began to lose feeling in his right foot and right hand. He could no longer work and his family had to send more money to bring him back to Nepal.

We spoke with Shyam at the Natural Health Hospital in Kathmandu, where he has been living since June. The hospital seemed empty. As it was a Saturday, we assumed it was "closed" on the weekends. With no staff to help us, we found Shyam, resting on a chair on a balcony surrounded by a group of friends and family members.

Shyam needed the help of two men to walk to his room. His left leg moved flawlessly, but his right leg swung forward in a stilted manner.

When we asked Shyam about his marriage, he told us he understood marriage to be finding a girl, having kids right away, and making sure the children were more educated than their parents. When we discussed the marriage of his children, he firmly stated that they would decide for themselves when to marry. But he quickly added a caveat: this could only happen is the family was living a better life.

It seemed clear that education and awareness campaigns against child marriage in Nepal have had some success. The Balami family was aware of the dangers of child marriage and hoped for a different future for their children. But to attain this, more than good will and education is needed. Economic opportunity plays a significant role in decreasing early marriage in Nepal.

As our interview with Shyam came to an end, we showed the young father pictures of his wife and children that we had taken that morning. A smile exploded across his face.

Tomorrow Sanani will sacrifice a day of work and pay for transportation to visit her husband in Kathmandu. The trip will worsen their economic situation and increase their dependency on agricultural work Sanani is able to do. It will also impact the future of her two-year-old daughter.

Reporting for this project was supported by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.