Child, early and forced marriage is a complex issue. It’s not specific to one culture, religion or belief. It’s a global problem, disproportionately affecting girls with approximately 15 million girls married before the age of 18 every year.
This practice is a violation of girls’ rights – forcing young girls to become brides, wives and mothers far too soon. While the movement to end child marriage is growing, and organizations like Plan International continue to work tirelessly with communities to put a stop to this tradition, sadly, there are still many girls, like 16-year-old Punam from Nepal, who become child brides.
In this guest post, photojournalist Lieve Blancquaert shares Punam’s story, and reveals the devastating reality of child marriage.
Punam believes she is sixteen, but does not know for sure. Her aunt is asked for her age and starts counting on her fingers, but she cannot work it out either. She might be sixteen but no one in her family can confirm it.
When Punam’s parents died, she and her two sisters went to live with their aunt. It was the only solution at the time, but today, the situation has become untenable for everyone. It is no longer possible for her aunt to provide them all with food and shelter as the family has grown too large for her to cope with.
Poverty adds enormous pressure to families in remote parts of Nepal. This is why Punam is getting married tomorrow. All she knows about the young man she is marrying is a photo on her mobile phone. My stomach tightens as I look around the room. These women have nothing – they are from the lowest caste, dirt poor and illiterate. As if that is not enough, they have to find money to give to the groom’s parents. Although, this dowry practice is now prohibited in Nepal, as is often the case, tradition takes precedence over the law.
I long look at the photo of her fiancé on her phone, but the quality is so poor that all I can make out is a dark silhouette sitting in a white plastic lawn chair. Punam’s eyes empty of all expression when I ask her about the boy.
“I’m afraid I do not know what awaits me. It was my uncle who found Ashok and made the agreement with his family. It is the community that decides what happens to me and my two sisters. I will miss my aunt but Ashok is my saviour. He has a job in Bangalore, he sews bags by hand in a large factory and earns $100 a month. I will certainly have a better life. I think it’s great, beautiful and good.”
Punam has a child’s body, and when I ask her if she is afraid of falling pregnant, she does not seem to understand my question. I ask again: “How are you going to prevent getting pregnant straight away?” She answer with a whisper, “I do not know how to get pregnant.”
Twenty-four hours later I meet Ashok, accompanied by his mother. He is dressed like a prince, with shoes that are clearly too large for him. I ask friends how old he is, and I get five different answers. Nobody knows exactly. He appears to be a teenage boy, barely pubescent. And this is the child who will soon play the man of the house. An overwhelming responsibility for his small shoulders.
During the ceremony, Punam and Ashok do not look at each other. I can see nothing between them, apart from fear and stress. To conclude the formalities, Ashok’s thumb applies a line of bright red sindoor (cosmetic powder) along the hair parting of his bride. Punam will wear this Hindu symbol throughout her married life. The red line on her head shows everyone her status. Now, she is the property of her husband and her in-laws.
Child marriage is a common problem in Nepal’s rural areas. About 50 percent of marriages take place before youth turn 18 due to a lack of awareness, poverty and weak enforcement of child marriage legislation.
Plan International is supporting girls and boys to continue their education and to find employment so they are not reliant on marriage as a source of economic well-being.
End child marriage
Ending child marriage is critical to achieving gender equality, and ensuring the rights of girls and women are met. Learn more about the issue, and see how education is a powerful weapon in the fight to end this practice.