Alice Hazlehurst Duncan was an ICS volunteer in Gotikhel, Mahankel district, Lalitpur, Nepal, working primarily on youth livelihood projects. On the 27th of January, 2019, her placement team helped organised a street drama on Child Marriage.
80% of girls marry before the legal age of 20 in Nepal, with nearly a third married before the age of 16 and 10% before 13 . This increases when accounting for caste, with lower rural castes particularly at risk. Unfortunately, the recent earthquake (2015), as well as the aftershocks of the civil war (1996-2006) has slowed expected progress against this trend. Girls have been made more vulnerable to exploitation, due to issues of food security and reduced access to adequate education and employment.
On the 27th of January, our placement team, in Gotikhel, Lalitpur, staged a street drama as a creative form of resistance against the dangers of child marriage.
Working with youth in Nepal has given me two opposing perspectives. On the one hand, the Nepali youth share many synchronicities with my own experience of childhood – clapping games, passing notes, playing hairdresser. Yet, there are important cultural differences which shape their daily realities. In particular, rigid gender roles. These girls, my Nepali sisters – are burdened with domestic responsibility and often forced to practice ‘chaupadi’ meaning during menstruation one isn’t allowed to participate in normal activities, leaving them with an educational gap, compared with male counterparts. The expectation of marriage is on the horizon for most.
But why does child marriage actually happen? After community research, three common themes emerged: eloping, poverty and child labour. We developed these into short plays for the children to work on. This seemed a more appropriate way to listen to the narratives of CM, in a way that dehumanising protest chants can miss. Street dramas in Nepal are a popular way to bring communities together and tackle social problems .
One scene tackled the scenario of eloping. A boy and a girl fall in love young and get married before they are mature enough to commit. The boy then falls in love with another girl and they face a highly stigmatised divorce, which leaves the first girl in a situation where it will be difficult to provide for herself.
Eloping has become an increasing problem in this generation. Many are escaping forced marriage and meeting through social networks, increasing the risk of grooming and trafficking. Whilst lack of sex and relationship education prevents informed decisions about what an opposite-sex intimate relationship means. When young people develop a romantic relationship, they feel they have no choice, due to the stigma around romantic ties.
Another scene showed a poverty-driven circumstance; a family forced to marry their daughter to a higher caste, as an escape from food insecurity. This becomes child exploitation, as the richer family benefits from the girl’s free labour. This is a common problem in Nepal, as poverty drives demand for cheap and disposable labour. This drives unemployment further, as opportunity is stripped from the child’s future. Many campaigners actually stress that child marriage should be framed as inherently child labour in-itself, to remove its romantic association.
However, these are not the only impetuses for CM. Despite the legal age, tradition cites that dowry increases with age, pressuring families to sort marriages for their daughters as young as possible. Whilst the problems child marriage presents increase teenage pregnancy risks like miscarriage, domestic violence and access to education; with married girls 10 times more likely to drop out of school. This is why awareness campaigns, like our recent street drama, are so crucial to begin shifting attitudes.
Although simple and light hearted, the street drama attracted much community attention. People from around the village gathered with great enthusiasm and participation. Banners were held in both English and Nepali quoting: ‘marriage can wait, education can not’, ‘child marriage is a losing game’ and ‘put a pen in her hand, not a ring on her finger’. The lives behind these platitudes may have been given a platform that day, but the real work begins with more rigorous and consistent grassroots campaigning, both nationally and internationally, towards more effective government policy. We need to address the complexities of CM to mitigate it’s most harmful consequences, in a way that raising the legal age has not achieved.