Inside Nepal’s forced marriage revolt

When love and tradition collide

Imagine being told you’re not allowed to fall in love – that marriage is a business deal, founded in patriarchy and maintained through tradition. And that you can’t say no.

Globally, it’s thought 15 million girls are made to marry against their will every year. Corinne Redfern heads to rural Nepal to investigate the intricacies of forced marriage – and meet the teenagers determined to rebel against it. 

Photography: Vincent Tremeau

Hasina, 19

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“There’s a big difference between having a relationship and being married in Nepal. If you’re in a relationship with somebody, then something about that person has to be so special that you’re willing to risk everything to be with them. You have to be willing to leave your family and your home and your village. You might not have to – occasionally, parents decide it’s OK to trust their daughters’ judgment. But that’s still quite rare. For most of us, love means risk. And not everyone wants to take risks like that.

Not everyone wants to risk a relationship

I guess relationships are optional here – but marriage isn’t. If you’re a girl, you have to be married by 25, or people will treat you differently. I can’t even imagine what that would be like – everyone would stare at you in the street. Arranged marriages take the pressure off, because you don’t have to worry about finding somebody yourself. But it’s still never completely safe. If you’re unlucky and end up with the wrong man, then it’s probably the end of your freedom. And girls don’t have much freedom at the start.”

When you’re in love, you don’t need to see each other

We had a really normal relationship for three months. We went for walks together, and sometimes we’d even hold hands. Everything had to be secret, but that wasn’t hard. My parents would never expect me to do this, so they missed all the signs. When he moved to Malaysia for work, he promised he would never leave me. I don’t have a mobile, and I’ve never even touched a computer, but there’s a guy in my village who has a phone and once every couple of months, my boyfriend will send a text via him to tell me he loves me. It’s been nine months since he left, and I’ve had about four messages so far. The last one said he missed me, and he couldn’t wait to see me again. I wrote it down in my notebook so I wouldn’t forget.

“Parents don’t want you to choose who you spend your life with because it makes everything complicated. You might make the wrong decision, and it could impact the whole family. But that’s not going to stop me – I trust my own choices. That said, if my boyfriend comes back and says he’s met somebody else, I won’t care. I’ll just meet somebody new.”

Thinking about having a boyfriend scares me

If I have my way, I’ll wait until I’m 20 to get married – and then I’ll fall in love with him afterwards. I hope I fall in love with him, anyway. I watch romantic Bollywood films on TV sometimes, and they make love look very dramatic and exciting. But it’s not up to me to decide when my wedding will be. My father died when I was little, so my mother makes all the decisions like that. I’ve never argued with her about anything. If she asks me to do something and I don’t like it, I just have to do it anyway. I don’t know what fighting back would achieve. It’s not like it would delay my marriage. It would just make things difficult between us.”

Sunita, 18

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“It’s not that I have a problem with arranged marriages, but I know they’re not right for me. It would be like agreeing to live in a prison for the rest of your life, just because everybody else is doing it too. I’m definitely only going to get married if I’m in love. Even if my parents tried to forbid me from going through with it, I’ll stick by my decision, because I know what liking someone feels like, and I’m not willing to sacrifice that for anyone.

I’ve had a boyfriend for nearly 12 months now, and I love him very, very much. We met in Year Six at school, but last year we met up again and we’ve been together ever since. On our first date, we went to a fairground together. Now we talk on the phone every night, and sometimes over Facebook too. He works as a mechanic in a town nearby, and when he comes to visit me, we just sit together for hours.

Being open minded is more important than being educated