June 2015: On 25 April, Nepal suffered a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake. Strong aftershocks in the following weeks have left communities unsettled and fearful, despite trying to build back their lives and return a sense of normalcy. The government of Nepal, together with national civil society and international aid agencies, are racing to provide immediate aid and relief to millions of people.
Whilst many resources are rightly being focused on immediate relief aid – food, water, and shelter – many of us are working to ensure that more protective services are not forgotten. The protection of women and children, educational, and maternal and neonatal health services are vital. The immediate needs of food, water and shelter are often referred to as ‘life-saving’ – while protection, education and health services, by contrast, are not. This could not be further from the truth.
For example, anti-trafficking interventions will ‘save the lives’ of potentially thousands of the most vulnerable adolescents who are at risk of being trafficked to brothels in Kathmandu and Delhi, and into a life of bonded sexual servitude.
Education programming – including the establishment of temporary learning spaces – provides both a safe and protective environment for children, and ensures that learning is disrupted as little as possible. Particularly for rural and marginalised children, we see that the longer they are out of school the less likely they are to return. This is especially true for adolescent girls.
Despite the legal marriage age in Nepal being 18, almost half of girls (41%) will marry before the age of 18, and 1 in 10 will marry before the age of 15, according to UNICEF data from 2015. Girls who are married off at a young age will likely drop out of school and will bear children too early and too frequently for their bodies to cope with.
Child marriage – exacerbated in an emergency
It has long been understood that child marriage increases due to emergencies, both in terms of the number of girls being married off as children and/or girls getting married at younger ages. However, the impact of a disaster on child marriage is in fact a much more complex and nuanced situation, and is based on numerous factors including both underlying cultural norms and the nature of the emergency.
Underlying cultural norms can include the average age gap between husband and wife. For example, some cultural norms accept a 14-year-old to marry a 30-year-old. Other cultural norms may see a 14-year-old marrying an 18-year-old. Both situations may differ based on the available dowry or bride price – and whichever one is more important.
In emergencies where there is a heightened level of poverty and vulnerability, and where families have lost everything, tough household decisions have to be made. This may include marrying a young adolescent girl, even though that may not have been the plan before the emergency.
The nature of the emergency is also a factor in child marriage. Where there is mass displacement (for example into formal or spontaneous displaced persons camps) then additional factors come into play, such as parents’ concern of sexual violence in the camp and viewing marriage as a ‘protective’ measure.
In this regard, the idea of a ‘protective’ measure includes both the family honour and the perception that a married ‘woman’ is less likely to be subjected to sexual violence than an unmarried ‘girl’.
However, in some situations where mass displacement has not occurred – such as parts of India after Cyclone Phaillin in 2013, and parts of Niger after the West Africa Food crisis in 2012/2013 – communities’ perception of child marriage was that it had actually decreased after the emergency. This was due to a combination of age difference between girls and boys, the dowry and subsequent community trends. In some situations, we saw young men leaving the rural areas to seek work in the cities, therefore indefinitely delaying a marriage that had been previously arranged.
Reducing child marriage
It is clear that under the humanitarian imperative, where we see that child marriage will increase due to an emergency, we are obligated to address the issue. However, equally, where child marriage decreases due to an emergency we have an incredible and unique window of opportunity to embed the reduction of child marriage as a new normative practice.
Given the nature of child marriage in Nepal, coupled with the earthquake and the nature of the emergency response, it is expected that child marriage will increase over the next 12 to 24 months, and for all the reasons listed above.
Many families cannot afford to keep their daughters and with major impact to schools and the education environment, marriage may be seen by some as a viable option for girls. Schools reopened on 31 May, but with thousands of classrooms destroyed and needing repair, for hundreds of thousands of children, returning back to school, is still not an option.
Knowing what we know about child marriage, and recognising that it is a key driver of inter-generational poverty, we can predict that unless something is done to prevent child marriage now and in the aftermath of the April earthquake, future generations of children will continue to be born to child brides.
Understanding the risk, the causes and the consequences of child marriage – particularly in an emergency setting – what could be more ‘life saving’ than working to ensure this does not happen?