Adolescents’ access to information can be a key to ending child marriage in Nepal

Representational file

Nepal aims to end child marriage by 2030. To achieve this target, various national and provincial strategies and programmes have been launched. Nepal also has made assurances at the global level for ending child marriage.

As per the Nepali law, marriage below the age of 20 is illegal and anybody forcing child marriage is sentenced to one year in jail or a fine of Rs 10,000 or both. Despite these efforts, child marriage continues to be a national problem. Among other reasons, inaccessibility of appropriate information regarding sexuality, sexual health and rights and reproduction among adolescents plays a significant role.

Child marriage increases the risks for both female and male children. However, the chances of abuse and violence against the girls increase by many folds. A girl is most likely to face many health, career-related, educational, psychological, and physical hazards in life as the consequences of getting married early.  Her husband’s family usually does not want the girl to continue her study as per her gender roles and established social norms. She has higher chances of facing domestic violence; she may go through early pregnancy and health complications, and her potential to shape her identity is least possible in such a case.

The law has been put in place that discourages parents from getting their children married before 20 years of age. However, the National Child Rights Council data (2019) show that out of total child marriages taken place, only 38 per cent were forced; the 62 per cent married with their own decisions. The public awareness about child marriage-related laws, development of technology, and exposure to social media might have shifted the paradigm of child marriage from force to choice in recent years.

Most of the national and provincial strategies are focused on addressing poverty, raising awareness among parents and children, and increasing access to education for girls to end child marriage. As a result of these efforts, parents’ perspectives about getting their children married early are changing. Similarly, there are some established safety networks for young girls and boys at the local level such as child clubs and networks. However, all these efforts are missing to address one of the major issues: the curiosity about sexual behaviours and reproductive functioning among adolescents.

As children start transitioning to adolescence, they get confusing and conflicting information about sexual relations and body. Sometimes, they do not get answers to these issues at all as talking about such topics is considered a taboo in our society. Girls find themselves more confined and limited as patriarchal values control women’s bodies. Sexual intercourse outside marriage is considered a sin and is often associated with familial disgrace.

As per the data, the age category of children who get married on their own will is 12-16 years. This is the age of curiosity as well as a transitional stage from childhood to puberty followed by rapid bodily growth. With the increased sexual curiosity and reproductive growth, adolescents often dwell in a stage of excitement, inquisitiveness and confusion.

Rather than addressing their present queries and curiosity, we often compel them to think about the future and how child marriage may inflict catastrophe on their lives in order to convince them against child marriage. This un-matching of children’s state of mind and our interventions means we are providing futuristic solutions to their present issues.  Since they do not find answers to their questions, they feel getting married as only the established way to explore themselves and their sexuality.

Some of the self-initiated child marriages occur due to social stigma. Usually, the boy and the girl fear social blaming and defamation caused by their friendship and seek a safe landing in marriage.

Efforts by the government to increase children’s access to information and education related to their physical, reproductive and emotional changes are minimal. The information is not disseminated in a child-friendly way. Children do not have access to information that may promote safe sexual and reproductive behaviours and attitude in them. When an adolescent girl is confused with her own attraction towards the opposite sex, she should get proper counselling to understand that it is natural. But, in reality, she is further stigmatised and in fear of further abandonment from her family and society upon knowing about her affair. Consequently, she runs away.

Many girls get married to escape disturbing family issues, mistreatment from parents, and sexual abuse from family members. They seek emotional support and security in marriage. Though the current law does not count child marriage as a union, from the standpoint of such children, marriage can only be a safer alternative within their reach. Some girls may prefer to be into the wedlock rather than being sexually molested from family members or relatives. When disturbed and broken families fail to give love and emotional support to children, they search it outside and may find it in their partners. Our laws relating to child marriage have the umbrella approach to see the cases; they need to understand the complexity and diversity within child marriages.

Our existing law on child marriage questions young people’s right to make decisions about their body, sexuality and reproduction because it is silent about the consent factor in such marriages. In many cases, both of them run away out of their will. We often find cases in which a boy and a girl are separated because they are below 20 years. But, the consequences of forceful separation are often painful. While the boys may be sent to rehabilitation centres, girls are often sent to families or safe shelters. Young girls in such cases tend to think that because of them, their male partner is in trouble. Social stigmatisation is another factor that impacts a girl after separation. The guilt and social blaming lead to the situation in which young girls commit suicide or lose their mental stability.

Thus, it is very important that our interventions increase adolescents’ access to information related to sexual and reproductive health and counselling, by establishing information and counselling centres at the local level where their confidentiality is maintained. Provincial and local governments should treat adolescents as active actors and involve them in developing policies that will affect their future.

Mainstreaming adolescent SRHR agendas in education, curriculum and equality agendas by both government and non-government organisations is required. Similarly, families are the most accessible places for adolescents to learn about sexuality, sexual behaviours and adolescent changes. Thus, we should change our perception that considers talking about such topics as a taboo and make parent-children conversation about sexuality comfortable, well -accepted and appreciated.

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Sharma works for WOREC Nepal.

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