She eloped when she was 16. Now she’s serving time for child marriage

The law on child marriage is so vague, it often ends up criminalising victims rather than perpetrators.
Tsering D Gurung
Published at : August 12, 2019
Updated at : August 12, 2019 08:17

Poonam, now 17, is serving time at a children's correctional home in Bhaktapur. Tsering D Gurung/TKP

Recently, another young couple ended up spending 11 months at the correctional home after their families filed a child marriage case against them. The two belonged to different castes and had eloped.

Initially, the boy’s family had welcomed the girl into their home. But the girl’s family, who were unhappy about the relationship, filed a case against the boy because he belonged to a so-called lower caste. In retaliation, the boy’s family then filed a complaint against the girl.

“More than genuinely reporting child marriage, the law has become something of a tool to settle personal scores,” said Bhandari.

While in these two cases, children ended up serving nearly a year at a correctional home, in other cases involving adults, the court has often let the perpetrators off with lenient sentencing.

For instance, in the case of Nepal v. Kaluman Rai, the father of a 13-year-old girl who confessed to having arranged the marriage of his minor daughter, the court sentenced him to only three days of imprisonment and a fine of just Rs 25. In another case, CWC Surkhet v. Govinda Sunuwar, which involved the marriage of a 13-year-old girl to an adult, the perpetrator was punished with three months’ imprisonment and Rs 1,000 fine.

While traditionally, child marriages were arranged by families, an increasing number of under-age couples run away together. More than 30 percent of child marriages happening today are by elopement, according to a survey conducted by the Nepal chapter of Girls Not Brides, a global network campaigning to end child marriage. The survey was conducted in five districts with a high prevalence of child marriage.

“You have to look at what’s driving child marriage,” said Anand Tamang of Girls Not Brides-Nepal. “Once we get to the bottom of that, then we can get to solutions.”

Children rights activists say that among the several factors pushing young couples towards eloping, stigma surrounding premarital sex ranks high.

“A lot of these young couples are forced to run away because Nepali society, in large part, does not have a dating culture,” said Sumnima Tuladhar, executive director at CWIN-Nepal. “Premarital sex is a big no-no and for teenagers who are beginning to get sexually active, there is often no other way than to run away and live together.”

One measure, activists propose, is to introduce lessons on child marriage and sex education in school curriculum.

“We need to start talking about sex openly so we can normalise it,” said Tuladhar.

A key thing to remember is to not view the problem of child marriage in isolation, said Maharjan of Save the Children.

“It’s linked to a lot of different issues: poverty, education, gender disparity,” he said. “Unless we take those into account, punitive measures won’t work.”

Nepal aims to end child marriage by 2030 as part of its commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In 2016, the government endorsed a national strategy that provides an overarching framework to end child marriage. Among the six pillars listed in the strategy is strengthening and implementing laws and policies. This is particularly important, given problematic provisions.

Presently, the statute of limitations on reporting child marriage is three months, which is insufficient, lawyers say. Additionally, such marriages can be declared void only after an individual reaches 20. And even then, if the woman has had a child from the union, that right is taken away.

“The Ministry [of Women, Children and Senior Citizens] should seriously look into the current laws and amend them accordingly if it’s genuinely committed to ending child marriage,” said Bhandari.

For Poonam, who is due to deliver next month, her situation is not extraordinary. Most of her friends back home in Bajhang are married and some already have children of their own.

The only difference is that someone reported her to the authorities.

“They’re living their lives,” said Poonam. “And I am here.”

Tsering D Gurung

Tsering D. Gurung was the social justice reporter for The Kathmandu Post, focusing on women's rights, marginalised communities and criminal justice.