Protecting Girls from Child Marriage

Nepal | The Lost Girls: One woman’s battle to end child marriage

NEPAL — Each year, 15 million girls are married before the age of 18. That’s 28 girls every minute, and one girl every two seconds. In Nepal, one in three girls under the age of 18 are married. One in 10 girls under the age of 15 are married.

The culture of child marriage is accepted in this country. In some cases it’s forced, but in others it’s consensual. The act of child marriage, which is punishable by jail time, has been illegal in Nepal since 1963.

CBSN’s Reena Ninan traveled to a rural village to witness an illegal wedding firsthand.

“How do you feel?,” Ninan asked the young girl. “Do you feel nervous? Do you think you should have waited a little bit longer to get married?”

“Yes,” the 17-year-old girl replied.

In 2014, Nepal pledged to end child marriage by 2020. But just two years later, it pushed back its goal to 2030.

Importance of education

According to the U.N., child marriage only perpetuates the cycle of poverty. When parents force their daughters to marry young, they drop out of school, face domestic violence and are more likely to die from pregnancy complications.

Rachana Sunar, 22, lives in a village in Western Nepal. Her mission is to stop the age-old practice of child marriage, which is no easy feat.

In another life, she would have been forced into marriage by now. She’d have a few kids and would be silenced at home. But she begged, pleaded and managed to get a scholarship to study abroad, which in turn changed her fate for the better.

Now, Rachana is going door-to-door to spread her message to prevent child marriage. She’s phased by little and willingly resorts to extreme measures like going to the police to report and forcibly stop marriages, sometimes right on the wedding day. To locals, those actions are seen as provocative. Many people believe she should quiet down and lower her profile, including her own mother.

“She’s in the limelight now, but that makes me worry,” her mother said. “She has enemies. A lot of the villagers don’t like her. I fear that she may be raped, or that someone might knock her off the road.”

During Ninan’s stay, Rachana stopped a wedding by calling the police. And overnight, her mother’s worst fear came true — an angry mob confronted Rachana at her home. But she didn’t let the incident prevent her from losing sight of her main goal.

“If a girl hears my story, and how I started my journey, at least I’m giving hope to them,” she added. “There are some people  who don’t like the work I am doing. If I die for this reason, I know my sisters will be inspired and they will carry on.”

“If I lose hope, if I give up, nobody will dare to take this issue ahead,” she continued. “I’m happy to put my life at risk.”

Shortly after filming, Rachana stopped another three weddings. Her work has spurred a movement to end child marriage in her home district of Surkhet by 2020, ahead of the government’s 2030 target to wipe out the practice nationally.

She recently started an NGO called Sambad, which means “dialogue” in Nepalese, to help boys and girls alike discover their self-worth. She’s been fighting to empower the youth to focus on the importance of education. But in this conservative society, change isn’t easy. For some, this is the only education they will ever receive. For others, it’s the only place they’ll ever feel loved.

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