Agents of Change
Efforts are on to remove medieval rituals in Nepal.
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.