Agents of Change

Ef­forts are on to re­move me­dieval rit­u­als in Nepal.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Faizan Us­mani

Ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions Chil­dren's Fund ( UNICEF), early mar­riage or child mar­riage is a for­mal mar­riage or a statu­tory, cus­tom­ary or an in­for­mal union that is en­tered into by an in­di­vid­ual be­fore he or she be­comes 18.

In 2005, UNICEF con­ducted a house­hold sur­vey in some 49 devel­op­ing coun­tries, which re­vealed around 48 per cent or over 32.5 mil­lion fe­males in South Asia aged 15-24 were mar­ried or in union be­fore the age of 18.

Nepal is among the top ten coun­tries with a higher rate of fe­males be­ing mar­ried be­fore 18, ac­cord­ing to the State of the World's Chil­dren by UNICEF. It says more than 23 per cent of Nepalese girls aged 15-18 were mar­ried in 2012. In Nepal, over 50 per cent of women aged 20-24 years are mar­ried be­fore the age of 18, whereas less than 25 per cent of the mar­riages that take place in the coun­try are reg­is­tered in the civil registry of­fice.

In Nepal, girls aged 15-20 are twice as likely to die in child­birth as those in their twen­ties, while sui­cide tends to be the lead­ing cause of death for women of re­pro­duc­tive age, says Nepal’s Pop­u­la­tion Cen­sus 2011.

A com­mon prac­tice through­out the coun­try, child mar­riage is more preva­lent in the mid and far western re­gions of Nepal, wherein the ma­jor­ity of Terai and Mad­hesi eth­nic groups live. In­ter­est­ingly, the min­i­mum age of mar­riage is 20 for both men and women in Nepal and ar­rang­ing an un­der­age mar­riage could re­sult in a three-year im­pris­on­ment with a fine of up to 10,000 ru­pees ($127). How­ever, ow­ing

to the weak en­force­ment of law, the prac­tice has been in full swing in many parts of the coun­try.

Draw­ing the short and long-term con­se­quences of child mar­riages, Niko­lay Nikolov, a UK-based writer, says it tends to be a deeply em­bed­ded tra­di­tion in Nepal, where mar­riages are will­ingly or forcibly ar­ranged by par­ents or rel­a­tives of the girl and in some cases girls are found to be as young as 12 months at the time of their en­gage­ment.

“In the short-term, girls are more likely to drop out of school and are less likely to have ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion about birth con­trol and con­tra­cep­tion. In the long-run, they are more likely to suf­fer the dan­ger­ous im­pacts of early child­bear­ing. In a vi­cious in­ter­gen­er­a­tion cir­cle, the women are less likely to rise out of poverty so that they can spare their own daugh­ters from en­dur­ing the same fate,” says Nikolov.

To curb the per­ilous prac­tice, the United Na­tions Pop­u­la­tion Fund (UNFPA) and Nepal's Depart­ment of Women and Chil­dren took a unique ini­tia­tive by hir­ing Hindu priests and as­trologers as vol­un­teer ad­vo­cates who, be­sides for­tune telling, in­form peo­ple about the de­mer­its of early mar­riage.

An astrologer, lo­cally known as ‘Jy­otish,’ plays a sig­nif­i­cant role in Nepalese so­ci­ety and is re­ferred to by peo­ple on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions, such as child­birth, wed­ding, start­ing of a new busi­ness, rice feed­ing and sa­cred thread cer­e­monies, etc. For a com­mon Nepali, a jy­otish tends to be the most im­por­tant per­son be­cause of their abil­ity to pre­pare and in­ter­pret a cheena, the per­sonal horo­scope that is made ac­cord­ing to the Hindu astrological calendar. It re­veals the in­flu­ence of the plan­ets on a man or wo­man be­long­ing to a par­tic­u­lar zo­diac sign, which is known as raashi in Vedic or Hindu astrol­ogy.

As a rule, a cheena of an in­di­vid­ual is made ac­cord­ing to the dif­fer­ent plan­e­tary po­si­tions in the so­lar sys­tem at the time of birth. It serves as a life­time astrological guide and dur­ing dif­fi­cult times peo­ple con­sult an astrologer with their cheena and act ac­cord­ing to his ad­vice. And when it comes to mar­riages, the cheena is al­ways re­ferred to en­sure the astrological com­pat­i­bil­ity be­tween bride and groom.

Ris­ing to the oc­ca­sion, the lot of Hindu priests, as­trologers, shamans and other spir­i­tual lead­ers have started us­ing their stand­ing to in­form peo­ple about the ill ef­fects of child mar­riage and teenage preg­nancy.

“When par­ents bring their daugh­ter’s ‘cheena’, I pay close at­ten­tion to the birth year. If the girl is un­der­age, I ad­vo­cate her par­ents to wait un­til she is an adult be­fore ar­rang­ing her mar­riage. Any over­sight on my part can de­stroy the lives of ado­les­cent girls,” says Dev Dutta Bhatta, a 66year-old priest and astrologer.

“The ma­jor­ity of par­ents want to marry off their daugh­ters at an early age. Un­for­tu­nately, when they come to us, they lie about the age of their young girls. How­ever, the birth date men­tioned in the cheena is al­ways true, which helps us to imag­ine the pos­si­bil­ity of a child mar­riage tak­ing place – and the need to stop this from hap­pen­ing,” says Bhatta.

In col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Nepalese gov­ern­ment and UNFPA, many groups of as­trologers, priests and re­li­gious lead­ers are or­ga­niz­ing awareness cam­paigns and ori­en­ta­tion ses­sions in schools, ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions and in ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties to pro­mote fe­male ed­u­ca­tion and to warn peo­ple about the long-term con­se­quences of child mar­riage.

In the Dadeld­hura district, lo­cal priests have stopped some 14 child mar­riages through coun­selling. “I have al­ready or­ga­nized six coun­selling ses­sions against child mar­riage in nearby vil­lages and I am gear­ing up for more,” says Bho­jraj Josh, a lo­cal priest.

“Ear­lier, I only used to tell vil­lagers their for­tunes. Now I also tell them it is il­le­gal to marry off their chil­dren be­fore they reach 20,” says Shyam Ba­hadur Bhan­dari, an­other shaman.

“We not only help peo­ple get rid of evil spir­its and sick­ness, but also fight against so­cial evils like child mar­riage,” says Bhan­dari.

“Some peo­ple think we are quite con­ser­va­tive with tra­di­tional be­liefs that defy devel­op­ment. This is not true and the work we are do­ing against child mar­riage is be­cause we have a big­ger role to play in the trans­for­ma­tion of the so­ci­ety we live in,” says Padam Singh Ma­har, a Hindu shaman.

Hindu priests, as­trologers, shamans and other spir­i­tual lead­ers have started us­ing their stand­ing to in­form peo­ple about the ill ef­fects of child mar­riage and teenage preg­nancy.

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