By Corinne Redfern
23 Feb 2017
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
“Oh, I have a boyfriend,” Parwati leans forward, tucking a length of black hair behind her ear and lowering her voice, even though we’re entirely alone – both sat cross-legged on a bed her mother dragged out of the house in a flurry of broad hand gestures, loud insistences and spilled milk tea as soon as she saw me arrive. “But nobody knows. Not even…” The 15-year-old frowns and looks over her shoulder. “Not even my friends know.”
She’s keeping him close to her heart for a reason, she says. Love isn’t meant to exist in Kapilvastu – it’s a symptom of weakness: punished by violence, exclusion and shame. Instead, the expansive, mustard-coloured plains of Nepal’s southern district are moored in patriarchal marital tradition, where teenage girls are bound by familial bureaucracy to wed whomever their parents choose, whenever their parents want. Marriage is an inevitability rather than a choice. If it doesn’t happen to you this year, it will almost certainly happen the next.
The younger you are, the cheaper your dowry. Child marriage isn’t new to Nepal, but its impact is devastating. As one of the largest international crises affecting women (globally 15 million girls are thought to be married off every year), and with the third-highest rate in Asia (after Bangladesh and India respectively), nationwide statistics suggest 41% of the country’s weddings take place to brides under the age of 18. Squeeze your way on-board a propeller plane from Kathmandu to Kapilvastu and that rate rises by over a third – although the girls’ stories are shrouded in secrecy, and exact data is hard to come by.
But the slow breeze that’s carried forward a caste-rooted culture is changing direction – and picking up speed. Countrywide programmes developed by the UNFPA and DFID already see self-assured groups of teenage girls knocking on neighbours’ doors in a bid to educate an older generation. In the northern, hilly district of Ramecchap, a 17-year-old tells me she’s too busy studying medicine to think about marriage (“Parents think they can sell us off,” she says. “But nobody is selling me.”). And in Kapilvastu, Parvati and her friends are leaning forward conspiratorially – telling me with whispered confidence that they’re learning what love is, and they’re not sure they’re willing to give it up.
“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.”
“The first time I saw my boyfriend, I wanted to hide. I was in the middle of a Nepali dance class, and my teacher was making us shake out our hips and our wrists and our legs in time to music from a CD player in the corner. When a group of boys walked past in the street outside, I ignored them. But a couple of them hung back and watched. Some of the other girls danced better after that, but I just wished the class would end. Then one of the guys followed me home – and right before we turned down the lane towards my house, he asked me to be his girlfriend. I don’t actually know why I said yes, but I did.
“ 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.”
“If I met a boy on the street tomorrow and he asked me out, I don’t know what I’d do. I know child marriage is wrong, because the idea of having an arranged marriage scares me – but so does thinking about having a boyfriend. I’m part of a ‘Girls Club’, that was set up in the village nearby, and my friends and I spend a lot of time sitting and talking about what we’re going to do when our parents start choosing our husbands, and what to do if it happens when we’re teenagers. But every so often, one of my friends will stop attending, and we’ll all know that it’s because her parents will have accepted a proposal on her behalf.
“ 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.”
“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 ”
My parents know about my relationship, but I was so scared before I told them that my arms and legs started shaking. I wasn’t scared that they’d kick me out – although that’s happened to a lot of girls I know – but I was worried that they might try to stop me from seeing him. Thankfully, both my mother and my father can see how happy he makes me. I think my father is a good role model – he’s not very educated, but he’s open-minded. And that’s much more important.”
The UNFPA has launched ‘say #IDONT’ - a campaign to fight back against child marriage in Nepal. Find out more here: unfpa.org
23 Feb 2017
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